William Steig (1907-2003): The Artistic Journey of a Cartoonist, Illustrator, and Beloved Children’s Author

William Steig (1907-2003): The Artistic Journey of a Cartoonist, Illustrator, and Beloved Children's Author

William Steig was born November 14, 1907, in New York, NY; died October 3, 2003, in Boston, MA. Cartoonist, illustrator, and author. Steig was best known as an award-winning cartoonist for the New Yorker and as the author of children’s books such as Abel’s Island and Shrek.

The son of European immigrants who encouraged their son to be an artist, Steig attended City College (now of the City University of New York) in the early 1920s and the National Academy of Design in New YorkCity from 1925 to 1929. But he was not the most enthusiastic of students; his time at Yale University lasted only six days. However, Steig found early success as an artist and was able to easily support his parents and siblings in his first year as a professional after being hired by the New Yorker in 1930.

He did single-panel cartoons featuring his characteristic squiggly-lined drawings and clever one-liners. Steig was unique in that he emphasized the drawings over the writing, something that ran counter to what cartoonists had been doing until then.

More milestones occurred in 1936 for Steig, including his abandonment of one-liner cartoons and his exploration into wood sculpting (he had his first exhibition in 1939) and a series of what he called “symbolic drawings,” which were his attempts to express emotions and states of mind visually. These drawings were later incorporated into merchandise ranging from cocktail napkins to playing cards. The artist has also been credited with influencing the greeting card business by employing humor that bordered on the rude, rather than writing the usual sweet and endearing messages.

Steig started publishing collections of his cartoons as early as 1932, the year he released Man about Town, which was followed by many more such books, including collections of his New Yorker work in Small Fry(1944) and William Steig: Drawings (1979), as well as collections of his symbolic drawings in such works as About People (1939) and All Embarrassed (1944).

A new facet of Steig’s career began when fellow New Yorker cartoonist Bob Kraus persuaded Steig to write his first children’s book. The result was 1968’s CDB! Steig discovered he had a natural gift for writing and illustrating juvenile books, and he thus embarked on a successful career that included award-winning books such as Sylvester and the Magic Pebble (1969), Amos and Boris (1971), Dominic (1972), The Real Thief (1973), Gorky Rises (1980), Doctor De Soto Goes to Africa (1992), and Shrek! (1993), the last of which was made into a blockbuster, computer-animated film.

His last book to be published was the auto-biographical When Everybody Wore a Hat (2003), which focuses on his childhood years. Steig’s awards are almost too numerous to list but include such prizes as the Caldecott Medal, the Christopher Award, the Lewis Carroll Shelf Award, the Hans Christian Andersen Medal, and the National Book Award.

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Early Life and Influences

William Steig’s roots are in Brooklyn, New York, where he was born to Polish-Jewish immigrants Joseph and Laura Ebel Steig. Raised in the Bronx, his parents were socialists, nurturing an environment that encouraged creativity and free thinking. Steig’s father was a house painter, and his mother, a seamstress, was crucial in supporting his artistic inclinations.

Steig displayed a keen interest in literature and art in his early years. An avid reader, he was particularly captivated by stories like “Pinocchio.” Steig’s childhood also saw him dabbling in painting, setting the stage for a future where his artistic endeavors would take center stage. Despite his artistic talents, he excelled in athletics, earning a place on the collegiate All-American water polo team.

A series of brief stints at various institutions marked Steig’s educational journey. Although he graduated from Townsend Harris High School at age 15, he never completed college. His academic journey included stops at the City College of New York, the National Academy of Design, and the Yale School of Art, where he spent a mere five days before dropping out. This unconventional path laid the foundation for Steig’s distinctive and unconventional approach to his craft.

The “King of Cartoons” Emerges

Hailed as the “King of Cartoons,” Steig made his mark in the art world through his association with The New Yorker. In 1930, he contributed illustrations and cartoons to the prestigious magazine, producing over 2,600 drawings and 117 covers. Among his notable creations during this period was “Poor Pitiful Pearl,” a character that transcended the pages of The New Yorker to become a famous line of dolls in 1956.

In 1934, Steig showcased his commitment to social causes by contributing to an auction organized by Langston Hughes. The proceeds were earmarked for the Scottsboro Boys defense fund, reflecting Steig’s engagement with the issues of his time.

Evolution into Children’s Literature

William Steig’s transition into children’s literature came later in life, a remarkable shift that began when he was 61. In 1968, he published his first children’s book, marking the start of a prolific and acclaimed chapter in his career. Steig’s ability to connect with young readers was evident, and his third book, “Sylvester and the Magic Pebble” (1969), even clinched the prestigious Caldecott Medal.

The success of “Sylvester and the Magic Pebble” set the stage for a remarkable journey in children’s literature. Steig authored more than 30 children’s books, with notable titles including the Doctor De Soto series. His storytelling prowess was matched by his artistic talent, creating a delightful synergy that endeared him to readers of all ages.

Shrek!: A Cultural Phenomenon

One of Steig’s most significant contributions to popular culture is the creation of “Shrek!” The picture book, published in 1990, served as the source material for the DreamWorks Animation film series that began with “Shrek” in 2001. Remarkably, after the release of “Shrek 2” in 2004, Steig became the first sole creator of an animated movie franchise that surpassed $1 billion in revenue from theatrical and ancillary markets after only one sequel.

When asked about the film adaptation of “Shrek,” Steig’s response was characteristic of his straightforward and unassuming nature: “It’s vulgar, it’s disgusting — and I loved it.” This candid response captured Steig’s ability to appreciate the transformative nature of his work while embracing creative interpretations.

Recognition and Personal Life

Steig’s contributions to literature did not go unnoticed. He was the U.S. nominee for the prestigious international Hans Christian Andersen Awards, both as a children’s book illustrator in 1982 and as a writer in 1988. His accolades included the Caldecott Medal in 1970 and the National Book Award in 1983.

In his personal life, Steig navigated through four marriages and had three children. His first marriage to educator and artist Elizabeth Mead Steig, the sister of anthropologist Margaret Mead, lasted from 1936 to 1949. His subsequent marriages were to Kari Homestead, Stephanie Healey, and Jeanne Doron. Despite the complexities of his personal life, Steig found stability in his final marriage to Jeanne Doron, which endured until his passing.

Legacy and Final Days

William Steig’s legacy is multifaceted, encompassing his prolific career as a cartoonist, illustrator, and children’s author. His ability to seamlessly transition from the sophisticated cartoons of The New Yorker to the whimsical world of children’s literature speaks to his versatility.

Steig’s influence extended beyond his immediate family, with several brothers engaged in creative pursuits. His brother Irwin, a journalist and painter, collaborated with William on two books on poker strategy. Another brother, Henry, was a jeweler, writer, and musician. Steig’s unique family background, with ties to artists and intellectuals, undoubtedly shaped his worldview and artistic sensibilities.

The “King of Cartoons” died on October 3, 2003, in Boston, Massachusetts, at 95. Shrek 2, released seven months after his death, was dedicated to his memory. Steig’s impact on the world of literature and animation endures, with his works continuing to captivate audiences and inspire new generations of readers and artists alike.

Notable Works and Legacy

Beyond “Shrek!” Steig’s catalog of works is expansive and diverse. His children’s books, including “Sylvester and the Magic Pebble,” “Doctor De Soto,” and “Abel’s Island,” remain cherished classics. Steig’s unique ability to blend humor, wit, and profound storytelling made him a beloved figure in children’s literature.

In 2003, his final year, Steig released “When Everybody Wore a Hat,” a poignant reflection that serves as a fitting conclusion to his illustrious career. Steig’s impact on the literary and artistic landscape endures, a testament to the enduring power of creativity and storytelling.

In summary, William Steig’s journey from a budding artist in Brooklyn to the “King of Cartoons” and a luminary in children’s literature is a testament to the boundless possibilities of a creative spirit. His ability to traverse various genres and captivate audiences across generations underscores the timeless quality of his work. William Steig’s legacy continues to enrich the world of literature, reminding us that, sometimes, the most profound stories come from the unlikeliest storytellers.



St. James Guide to Children’s Literature, fifth edition, St. James (Detroit, MI), 1999.


Independent (London, England), October 7, 2003, p. 16.

Los Angeles Times, October 5, 2003, p. B16.

New York Times, October 6, 2003, p. A17.

Times (London, England), October 8, 2003.

Washington Post, October 6, 2003, p. B5.

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FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions) about William Steig

Who was William Steig?

Answer: William Steig was an American cartoonist, illustrator, and writer best known for creating the picture book “Shrek!” which inspired the popular film series.

What are some of William Steig’s notable works?

Answer: Steig’s notable works include “Sylvester and the Magic Pebble,” “Doctor De Soto,” and “Shrek!” The latter became the foundation for the DreamWorks Animation film series.

What awards did William Steig receive?

Answer: William Steig received several awards, including the Caldecott Medal in 1970, the National Book Award in 1983, and the CINE Golden Eagle in 1984.

How did William Steig contribute to The New Yorker?

Answer: Hailed as the “King of Cartoons,” Steig contributed over 2,600 drawings and 117 covers to The New Yorker in 1930.

What prompted William Steig to start writing children’s books?

Answer: William Steig began writing children’s books at 61, and his third book, “Sylvester and the Magic Pebble,” won the prestigious Caldecott Medal.

What was Steig’s opinion of the Shrek movie adaptation?

Answer: When asked about the movie adaptation of “Shrek,” William Steig responded, “It’s vulgar, disgusting — and I loved it.”

How many times was William Steig married, and did he have children?

Answer: William Steig was married four times and had three children, including jazz flutist Jeremy Steig.

Did Steig engage in other artistic pursuits besides children’s books?

Answer: Yes, besides his children’s books, Steig illustrated for The New Yorker and contributed to various other works, including drawings and cartoons.

What was Steig’s background and early life like?

Answer: William Steig was born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1907 to Polish-Jewish immigrant parents. His father was a house painter, and his mother encouraged his artistic interests.

When and where did William Steig pass away?

Answer: William Steig passed away on October 3, 2003, in Boston, Massachusetts, at 95.

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