Second-hand stories: Amos and Boris by William Steig

The other day, I picked up Amos and Boris by William Steig (along with Alfie’s Feet by Shirley Hughes, and The Man Who Didn’t Wash His Dishes by Phyllis Krasilovsky) at Perth’s Paraquad Industries Op Shop and Book Bazaar (3/39 Erindale Road, WA 6021).

It was a pretty random selection – I only knew that the Alfie book would be a surefire hit. I had never even heard of William Steig, although I’m guessing he would have likely been part of your childhood if you grew up in the US. Steig (who died in 2003 aged 95) was a American cartoonist for the New Yorker, sculptor and children’s author and illustrator. Unknowingly I was already familiar with one of his creations: it turns out he wrote the book on which Shrek is based.

There is something rather familiar about Amos and Boris (published in 1971) too. It’s a book about a mouse, Amos, who yearns to travel beyond his own shore. When he falls from his own boat, the tiny mouse ends up seeing the world on the back of a whale, Boris. Amos later rescues Boris when he becomes beached on the shore. You can’t help feeling Julia Donaldson must have read Steig’s book before writing The Snail and the Whale. 

On first reading, one skittish bedtime, it proved difficult to keep my children’s attention for the whole of Amos and Boris. But reading it again with my daughter, 4, in the doctor’s waiting room, she was completely captivated for the duration. I was stunned by the scale, wit and beauty of Steig’s writing. 

For example, to describe the regard which develops between the mouse and the whale, he writes: “Boris admired the delicacy, the quivering daintiness, the light touch, the small voice, the gemlike radiance of the mouse. Amos admired the bulk, the grandeur, the power, the purpose, the rich voice, and the abounding friendliness of the whale.”

The story surges with great big feelings. When Amos first makes it out to the open ocean, he watches whales spouting phosphorescent water and experiences sheer wonder: “lying on the deck of his boat, gazing at the immense starry sky, the tiny mouse Amos, a little speck of a living thing in the vast living universe, felt thoroughly akin to it all.”

Indeed, this moment sees Amos so overwhelmed, he rolls off the deck of his boat and into the sea.

This turn of events is both ridiculous and near-fatal for Amos who, after a night of treading water, begins to consider his own end: “He began to wonder what it would be like to drown. Would it take very long? Would it feel just awful? Would his soul go to heaven? Would there be other mice there?”

It is a shocking page. There are a great many children’s books which explore the gamut of human emotion, but few look death squarely in the eye as Steig does, not once, but twice in this book. When Boris ends up beached, he feels doomed: “Just as Amos had once felt, all alone in the middle of the ocean, Boris felt now, lying alone on the shore. He was sure he would die.”

In a 2019 New Yorker article, headlined “William Steig’s Books Explored the Reality That Adults Don’t Want Children to Know About”, novelist Rumaan Alam nailed what is so striking about Steig’s stories: “there is whimsy, even silliness, but also palpable anxiety, peril, and despair in Steig’s world”. Alam writes of Amos and Boris: “I consider it a masterpiece—certainly of children’s literature, but maybe of all literature…It is Steig at his absolute best.”

I’d love to read many more of Steig’s books with the children, amongst them “Brave Irene”, the tale of a little girl who heads out into a snowstorm to deliver a dress, “Doctor De Soto” about a mouse dentist whose patient turns out to be a fox. 

I’ll let you know how I get on. 

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