Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Ten Things Picture Book Writers Can Learn From Shrek!

Last weekend, teacher extraordinaire Daniele Della Gala and I did a presentation called “Tyrannosaurus Math: Crunching the Numbers with Stories” at the California Math Council Conference in Palm Springs. After the talk, one of the attendees appreciated the sophisticated language in the book, at which point I expressed my debt to William Steig. Who has been on my mind lately because, by felicitous circumstance, November is William Steig Month.

Author/illustrator Barney Saltzberg and I have used Steig’s work in our picture books classes at UCLA Extension’s Writer’s Program. “The reason I write and illustrate picture books is because I fell in love with The Amazing Bone,” Barney said. "As a writer, I marvel at the predicaments that Steig puts his characters in. I never in my wildest dreams figure out what the solution will be.”

In honor of William Steig, TC&TF offers thoughts about one of his most successful books:

10 Things Picture Book Writers Can Learn From Shrek!

1. Stay true to your roots. “Shrek” means “fear” is Yiddish. Steig was raised by Eastern European Jewish immigrants who settled in the Bronx.

2. Create an original, irresistible character. Shrek has a funny name, he’s funny looking, fearless, lovestruck and possesses superpowers! He also furnished material for three movies -and a fourth in production.

3. Write a great first line: “His mother was ugly and his father was ugly, but Shrek was uglier than the two of them put together.” And a killer first paragraph: “By the time he toddled, Shrek could spit flame a full ninety-nine yards and vent smoke from either ear. With just a look he cowed reptiles in the swamp. Any snake dumb enough to bite him instantly got convulsions and died.”

4. Honor the classics. The exaggeration of Shrek’s revolting qualities and his strengths borrow from the tall tale tradition, while the quest frame, the seven-incident plot, the animism, the witch (and her chant), dragon, knight, and princess belong to fairy tales.

5. Honor the classics, but make the story your own. Steig was raised by parents involved in the social justice movement. Sympathetic to the underdog, Steig made the hero of his tale an ugly monster (with a donkey instead of a handsome steed) who finds love in the end, warts and all.

6. Choose your nouns and verbs wisely. Shrek toddles, slogs, stalks, swaggers. His head is his noggin, topped by a knob. Steig deftly uses long or unfamiliar words and stylish language in a way that’s accessible to children.

7. Use humor, both verbal (one day his parents “hissed things over,” “they kicked him goodbye,” etc.) and visual/situational (Shrek has a nightmare of kids hugging and kissing him).

8. Incorporate poetic language. Several characters speak in rhyme, and the warning on the tree is in rhyme. Many of Steig’s sentences are patterned and/or rhythmic.

9. Make it dangerous, but don’t kill anyone. Despite Shrek’s superpowers, characters only faint, become unconscious, or get so hot they dive in the moat.

10. Write with joy. Steig’s musings about art can be applied to literature as well: “(The spectator) experiences again what the artist experienced in making the painting: movement, emotion, a glorying in man’s boundless creative power, and wonder - which is respect for life.” (From Pipers At the Gates of Dawn by Jonathan Cott.)

If you’re a Steig fan, treat yourself to the on-line feature from the Jewish Museum’s 2007 Exhibit “From The New Yorker to Shrek: The Art of William Steig.” It includes an adorable illustration called “Family Reunion” that brings together many of the characters from his books.

November 14 is the 102nd anniversary of Steig's birth. We love you, William!


  1. THANK YOU for the link! I will pass it on! Great piece. We can start a group of Steigiests to let people know he wrote so much more than just Shrek!

  2. Michelle, I LOVE the lessons from William Steig. Thanks for this and for the link. What fun!

  3. Hi Michelle,

    A fellow Steig fan here (Amos & Boris, mine. Dr. DeSoto, my kids'.) Nice post -- good things to consider and to try to incorporate in a story. Hey, never hurts to reference the best. :- )
    Thanks for the insights.

  4. OMG--Abel's Island!!!! I learned all about Steig from a long-ago class taught by teacher extraordinaire, Barbara Bottner.

    Great post, Michelle. I'm sending this link to my students right now...and I'll link to in it in my blog post tomorrow (if my feeble brain rembembers...)