Sarah Garland on a picture book that spellbinds young readers….
A granddaughter came to tea, six years old, tired after school, dark around the eyes. We hunted through the shelves to find a book to read.
It was right at the back, grubby and bent.
‘Aha!’ I said. ‘Here’s Sylvester. Your mum loved this.’
We settled into our reading position on the sofa. Then, after three pages the restless little body changed. Her breathing slowed and quietened; she had become completely still. Every part of her was focused on the story. She stayed like that to the end, then drew a deep breath and said, ‘Please read it again.’
So – I wish I’d written (and illustrated) Sylvester and the Magic Pebble. The wrong wish, the lost child, the distraught parents (the drawing of the mother crying, her knitting unheeded in her lap, the flowers dead in the vase, might have been unbearable if she had been human – but she is a donkey), the good old story, but fresh, free, full of colour and wit. My granddaughter, like my daughter, had become spellbound in a country both magic and familiar, had experienced comedy and dark tragedy, and finally rejoiced in the happy ending. How I admire that William Steig.
William Steig’s Sylvester and the Magic Pebble is published by Simon & Schuster (978 1 416 90489 2, £5.99 pbk).
Sarah Garland’s classic series of pre-school books are being brought back into print by Frances Lincoln. The two latest titles are Going Swimming and Coming to Tea.