I start off each school year with a reading of Rotten Island, which is the book that changed my mind about what a children’s book could be. From its opening words you know you’re reading something different:
There was once a very unbeautiful, very rocky, rotten island. It had acres of sharp gravel and volcanoes that belched fire and smoke, spewed hot lava, and spat poison arrows and double-headed toads.
The spiny, thorny, twisted plants that grew there had never a flower of any kind.
There was an earthquake an hour, black tornadoes, lightning sprees with racking thunder, squalls, cyclones, and dust storms.
Steig goes on to detail the menagerie of monsters that live on this rotten island, describing “electric eels of high voltage,” “armour-plating full of tacks and rusty nails,” and “clacking shells covered with grit and petrified saurkraut.” They fight and claw for fun. They bathe in hot lava and laugh when others suffer pain. They take revenge, break things, caterwaul, and give each other bad dreams.
Rotten Island was their Paradise.
Once, after reading it to the group, Calvin raised his hand and said with the smile of a child tasting a forbidden delicacy, “I know why this is a Pre-K book; because it has violence in it.”
This is not a book for the feint of heart or even many 3-year-olds, who I’ve seen become overly frightened by it. In fact, most of Steig’s books fall into this category.
There’s Dr. De Soto, the mouse dentist who bravely performs dental surgery on a fox, knowing full well that he could be eaten at any moment. Adding to the suspense is the fact that the readers are privy to the fox’s inner monologue in which he has “definitely decided to eat them – with the help of his brand new tooth.”
And Solomon The Rusty Nail, in which our bunny hero, who has the magical ability to transform himself into a rusty nail, finds himself pounded into a wall by a hungry cat.
Or The Amazing Bone, in which gun toting bad guys are scared off by our pig heroine’s talking bone.
There are the horrifying creatures, such as in Shrek!.
And the equally horrifying concepts of Kafka-esque justice and bottled up parents found in The Zabajaba Jungle.
But most importantly, and the reason these books are so vital and beloved by the Pre-K children, is their straight-forward honesty about an imperfect world. Grown-Ups Get To Do All The Driving is so painfully honest that I’ve had parents request we remove it from the classroom.
Steig certainly wrote some less challenging books, such as the charming Pete’s A Pizza (which I read to the younger children as well) or the clever CDC? and CDB! But most of his work uses big words to address big ideas like life and death, peace and violence, truth and beauty -- just like real literature. And while adults often cringe because these books are so unlike much of the gentle butterfly sweetness found in other picture books, the children’s attentions are fixed and their eyes are round with amazement as I read. They can hardly contain themselves when I’m done. They are compelled to talk, to examine these heady concepts, and to clearly enjoy the flavor of truths that seem forbidden.
Steig’s stories put me in mind of classic fables and fairy tales and their ability to convey great truths from generation to generation. Until Walt Disney put his hands on it, for instance, children knew that the story of Cinderella ended with pigeons pecking out the eyes of the “false sisters.” Or that Snow White’s step mother is condemned in the end to dance in red-hot iron shoes until she falls down dead.
I don’t think we do children, especially “Pre-K” children, any favors by protecting them from the kinds of truths found in these stories. As Arthur Schlesinger said:
(Fairy tales) tell children what they unconsciously know – that human nature is not innately good, that conflict is real, that life is harsh before it is happy – and thereby reassure them about their own fears and their own sense of self.
Honest fairy tales give us a safe, fictional place in which young children, along with their adults, can explore the darker side of life, think about it, consider ways to deal with it, and generally prepare themselves for the real world.
And it’s something they really want to explore. I need only look into the faces of our Pre-K kids as I read Rotten Island, hear their gallows laughter, and share their discussions, to know that this is true. And the more we do this, the more confident they become that they will be able to handle whatever the world throws in their way.
At the end of The Zabajaba Jungle, Leonard frees his parents from a bottle in which they’re mysteriously imprisoned.
“Where are we?” his father asks.
“In the Zabajaba Jungle.”
“How do we get out?”
“Follow me,” says Leonard.
The truth, whatever our age, will set us free.