His sophisticated style and thoughtful subject matter have prompted several critics to compare William Steig to E. B. White and Steig’s Abel to White’s Stuart Little. Like White, Steig is famous for a long association with the urbane magazine The New Yorker and for his work for adults, in Steig’s case sardonic line drawings and cartoons. In both cases, the authors have managed to impart the wit and wisdom of their adult work to their children’s writing as well.
Steig is also a brilliant illustrator of his own fiction. He has written many picture books, winning a Caldecott Medal for Sylvester and the Magic Pebble (1969) and the American Book Award for Doctor De Soto (1982). Thoughtful characterization, strong adventure plots, and an ear for the absolutely apt word mark all of Steig’s narratives, short and long. Although magic is frequently the transformative element in picture books such as Sylvester and the Magic Pebble, character transformations occur more naturally and gradually in longer works such as Abel’s Island.
In addition to the motif of transformation, a romance or quest element exists in several of Steig’s creations. Molding his animal characters on such legendary beings as Odysseus or Aeneas, Steig has Abel and the dog protagonist of Dominic (1972) face a series of trials in a hostile world before achieving peace at home; they emerge as both active heroes and contemplative artists.
Finally, Steig underscores the classic quality of his work by adapting traditional narrative forms to his own purposes. Many of his picture books employ folktale motifs, Dominic has been called a picaresque novel, and Abel’s Island is in the tradition of the Robinsonnade or survival story.