For a decade now, here at Smithsonian, we've surveyed the year in children's titles. That annual excursion has allowed us to range across the realms of nonfiction and fiction, discovering new voices and appraising the most recent offerings from masters at the top of their form. In addition, we've made the acquaintance of many a lost treasure, books rescued from oblivion by the discerning publishers who reissue them.
Last summer's movie blockbuster Shrek was based (and we use the term advisedly) on New Yorker cartoonist-turned-children's book author and illustrator William Steig's curmudgeonly and slovenly green monster. The movie will, it is hoped, introduce Steig's urbane and uproarious picture books to a new generation of young readers, whose reading lives would be much diminished by the absence of his Doctor De Soto, brainy rodent and world-class dentist; Farmer Palmer, whose wild wagon ride offers the last word in comic misadventure, or any of the characters inhabiting some 30 titles in all.
As it happens, the prolific Steig has also illustrated a new title this year, A Gift from Zeus, published by HarperCollins and written by his wife, Jeanne. Her pixilated rendition of the life and times of the Greek pantheon, coupled with her husband's puckish watercolor-and-line drawings, is a collaboration ordained on Olympus. As a practitioner of light verse, Jeanne Steig knows few equals. Witness a snippet from her cataloging of the various misfortunes unleashed once Pandora opens the dreaded box: "Carbuncles, Quagmires, and Jiggery-Pokery, / Colic, Depravity, Lummoxes, Louts, / Barbed Wire, Insomnia, Practical Jokery, / Treachery, Lechery, Deluge, and Droughts."
Whichever of the duo is cooking up the text, a penchant for larkishly elevated diction is a hallmark of any Steig production; the lexicographical horizons of all concerned, children or the grown-ups who read to them, are likely to be expanded, and effortlessly at that. (A directive dispensed by De Soto, mouse dentist, comes to mind: "The secret formula must first permeate the dentine.") William Steig's explanation for this phenomenon is straightforward. "Kids," he has averred, "like those words."
Finally, for readers approaching our roundup of titles for the school-age set—including picture books and biographies, novels and memoirs, poetry anthologies and more—one caveat: the age categories below are necessarily arbitrary; consult the temperament and predilections of the individual child.