William Steig (November 14, 1907 – October 3, 2003) was a prolific American cartoonist, sculptor and, later in life, an author of popular children’s literature. Most noted for the books Sylvester and the Magic Pebble, Abel’s Island and Doctor De Soto, he also created the character Shrek, who inspired the popular movie series.
Steig was born in Brooklyn, New York to Polish-Jewish immigrants from Austria, both socialists. His father was a house painter, and his mother was a seamstress who encouraged his artistic leanings. As a child, he dabbled in painting and was an avid reader of literature. Among other works, he was said to have been especially fascinated by Pinocchio. In addition to his artistic endeavors, he also did well at
athletics, being a member of the collegiate All-American water polo team. He graduated from Townsend Harris High School at 15 but never completed college, though he attended three, spending two years at City College of New York, three years at the National Academy of Design and a mere five days at the Yale School of Fine Arts before dropping out of each.
His brother Irwin was a journalist and painter, and his brother Henry was a writer who played the saxophone and painted. His brother Arthur was a writer and poet, who, according to Steig, read The Nation in the cradle, was telepathic and “drew as well as Picasso or Matisse.”
When his family had financial problems during the Great Depression, he began drawing cartoons as a freelance artist and sold his first cartoon to The New Yorker in 1930. Living in Gaylordsville, Connecticut, he soon became successful. Over decades, he contributed more than 1600 cartoons to the magazine, including 117 covers, leading Newsweek to dub him the “King of Cartoons.” Steig was one of 250 sculptors who exhibited in the 3rd Sculpture International held at the Philadelphia Museum of Art in the summer of 1949. Steig was a patient of the psychiatrist Wilhelm Reich and illustrated Reich’s polemic, Listen, Little Man.
In 1968, he wrote his first children’s book. He excelled here as well, and his third book, Sylvester and the Magic Pebble (1970), won the Caldecott Medal. He went on to write more than 30 children’s books, including the Doctor De Soto series, and he continued to write into his nineties. Among his other well-known works, the picture book Shrek! (1990) formed the basis for the Dreamworks Animation film Shrek.
Steig married four times and had three children. From 1936 to 1949, Steig was married to educator and artist Elizabeth Mead Steig (1909–1983), sister of anthropologist Margaret Mead, from whom he was later divorced. They were the parents of jazz flutist Jeremy Steig and a daughter, Lucinda. He married second wife Kari Homestead in 1950, and they had a daughter, Margit Laura. After their divorce, he was married to Stephanie Healey from 1964 to 1966. His final marriage, to Jeanne Doron, endured for the rest of his life.
At the age of 95, Steig died from natural causes on October 3, 2003. The closing credits for Shrek 2 noted: “In memory of William Steig, 1907-2003.”
- 1939, About People
- 1941, How to Become Extinct [Will Cuppy; illustrations by Steig]
- 1942, The Lonely Ones
- 1945, Persistent Faces
- 1946, Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House [illustrations by Steig]
- 1950, The Decline and Fall of Practically Everybody [Will Cuppy; illustrations by Steig]
- 1951, The Rejected Lovers
- 1953, Dreams of Glory
- 1968, CDB!
- 1968, Roland the Minstrel Pig
- 1969, Sylvester and the Magic Pebble
- 1969, Bad Island
- 1971, Amos and Boris
- 1972, Dominic
- 1973, The Real Thief
- 1974, Farmer Palmer’s Wagon Ride
- 1976, Abel’s Island
- 1976, The Amazing Bone
- 1977, Caleb & Kate.
- 1978, Tiffky Doofky
- 1979, Drawings
- 1980, Gorky Rises
- 1982, Doctor De Soto
- 1984, CDC?
- 1984, Doctor De Soto Goes to Africa
- 1984, Ruminations
- 1984, Yellow & Pink
- 1984, Rotten Island
- 1985, Solomon: The Rusty Nail
- 1986, Brave Irene
- 1987, The Zabajaba Jungle
- 1988, Spinky Sulks
- 1990, Shrek!
- 1992, Alpha Beta Chowder
- 1994, Zeke Pippin
- 1996, The Toy Brother
- 1998, A Handful of Beans: Six Fairy Tales / retold by Jeanne Steig [illustrations by William Steig]
- 1998, Pete’s a Pizza
- 2000, Made for Each Other
- 2000, Wizzil
- 2001, A Gift from Zeus
- 2002, Potch & Polly
- 2003, When Everybody Wore a Hat
- 2003, Yellow & Pink [new format]