I have been enjoying two fabulous children's authors: William Steig and Bill Peet. They have a lot in common, it turns out.
Both were American. They were contemporaries: Steig was born in 1907 and died in 2003 (aged 95); Peet was born in 1915 and died in 2002 (aged 87). Both charmingly illustrated their own stories*. Both had interesting careers outside of their work as authors: Steig was a cartoonist for The New Yorker; Peet wrote for Disney.
Both wrote stories about innocent child or animal protagonists battling the odds to achieve something. Steig's characters outsmart evil captors, break free from enchantments, and face storms to find their way home for a happy reunion with loved ones. Peet's stories frequently contain an environmental message. In one story, a little bird flies from New York City to California to live in a redwood tree. In another, a group of animals hop a train to try to find a new home after their habitat is destroyed.
Gripping stories, sweet pictures, engaging characters... yes, yes, yes. But what I am enjoying the most at the moment is the rich vocabulary in these books. They are for quite young children, really, but neither Steig nor Peet shies away from big or uncommon words. Here's what I've found in a quick flip-through of the ones that happen to be lying about:
- Steig: perplexed, ceased, compote, exclamations, defecate**
- Peet: chortled***, blunder, diminishing, bedraggled, sycamore, indestructible
I read aloud to my kids every night. And I've had enough of Go Dog Go, Green Eggs and Ham****, and Are You My Mother? I love books like this instead: books that engage me as much as they engage the kids. My kids prefer them too.
* With a few exceptions; for instance, Steig's later work was illustrated by others. Hard to draw when you're, like, 92.
*** Peet loves this word! I've seen him use it in at least three different stories.
****Am I the only one out there who is not a fan of Dr. Seuss's illustrations? Creepy. Why are they all smiling with their eyes closed? And all those floppy feet...