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Abel's Island
William Steig
Farrar Straus & Giroux

Abel's Island
William Steig
William Steig is an 88-year-old New Yorker cartoonist. His novels include the celebrated Sylvester and the Magic Pebble and The Amazing Bone.

Newbery Medal winners
Abel's Island reviews by 5th graders
Steig et al. favorite children's books
The Children's Literature Web Guide
American Library Association's banned books
Steig's original watercolors

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Lela Olszewski


"Early in August 1907, the first year of their marriage, Abel and Amanda went to picnic in the woods some distance from the town where they lived. The sky was overcast, but Abel didn't think it would be so inconsiderate as to rain when he and his lovely wife were in the mood for an outing.

"They enjoyed a pleasant lunch in the sunless woods, sharing delicate sandwiches of pot cheese and watercress, along with hard-boiled quail eggs, onions, olives, and black caviar. They toasted each other, and everything else, with a bright champagne which was kept cool in a bucket of ice. Then they played a jolly game of croquet, laughing without much reason, and they continued laughing as they relaxed on a carpet of moss."

It's hard to imagine that Abel's Island was written only 21 years ago. This delightful fantasy about a mouse marooned on a river island has a timeless quality that succeeds in a way that children's books full of the latest slang and social relevance rarely can. The charm of the book is that it takes itself seriously (not that it's a solemn book), allowing the reader to enter into and maintain the fantasy for the entire story. Steig, author of Silvester and the Magic Pebble and other children's books, does this by first introducing the reader to the scene above. It isn't until Amanda sits UNDER a fern and Abel looks UP at some daisies that the reader has a hint that they aren't human.

Abelard Hassam di Chirico Flint, of the Mossville Flints, is a well-to-do young mouse, living off his mother's fortune and enjoying a life of leisure. He expects the weather to be polite and is offended when rain spoils the picnic. When Amanda's scarf flies into the storm, he impulsively tries to retrieve it and is swept away by the storm: Abel has begun his hero's journey. During the months he is stranded on the island, Abel, true to his name, learns he is capable of foraging for food, solving engineering problems (even when faced with repeated failure), defending his life against predators and surviving despair and loneliness. He contemplates God's reasons for putting "loathsome, abominable creatures" like owls, cats and fleas in the world and analyzes his love for Amanda. He gains an appreciation for nature and is inspired "to try his hand at making something just for its own sake, something beautiful." Stripped bare of all but the most basic of civilization's trappings, Abel finds his true calling: he is an artist.

Like the more recent Brian Jacques' Redwall series (and many other books), the various animals are not just anthropomorphized, but highly civilized: bears write novels about war, toads go to carnivals, weasels say their prayers when scared and so on. Yet, it is in leaving behind civilized ways that Abel connects with the primitive, with the wild mouse within (to paraphrase Robert Bly). Abel's journey is the opposite of Robinson Crusoe's: rather than attempt to recreate civilization as Crusoe did, Abel lets his civilized Victorian ways go. He learns to gnaw wood with his teeth, to start a fire, to make wine from berries and to fire clay into pottery. At one point, Abel chants an incantation at an owl feather, sure that he has power over the owl as a result and discovers the imaginative power of sympathetic magic. In connecting with the elemental, Abel unlocks his artistic and heroic self.

Steig's illustrations augment the story in exactly the right way. When Abel's friend Gower, a frog, leaves the island, you can tell precisely what Gower and Abel are feeling from their stances and expressions in the illustration. Amanda's joy at finally seeing Abel again is perfectly expressed by one detail: she's thrown her hat on the floor in her rush to embrace him. It's easy to understand why his illustrations have appeared on so many New Yorker covers.

Abel's Island isn't without controversy: it's been banned in Florida. In 1990, the Clay County school administrators removed the book from the fifth- and sixth-grade optional reading lists. They decided that passages such as, "He drank large draughts of his wine and ran about everywhere like a wild animal, shouting and yodeling," violated the school district's substance abuse policy.

Abel's Island works on so many levels that it's no wonder it is a classic and a Newbery Medal honor book. It's the perfect book to read to aloud to younger children, who will be enthralled by the animals and all the details of Abel's life on the island. A staple of fifth-grade reading lists, the inventiveness and adventure of the story captivate older children. Steig also includes a sprinkling of the type of unusual words that delight children for their sounds: skedaddled, equinocintal, sequestration. Adults respond not only to the story, but to the universal emotions and questions Abel ponders. Steig never talks down to his readers, nor does he simplify Abel's struggles, both real and existential. If you haven't read Abel's Island, take a half hour and treat yourself. If you have, read it aloud as a treat for a friend.

Copyright © 1997 by Lela Olszewski

Lela Olszewski is an avid reader of science fiction, fantasy, mystery and romance, as well as an eclectic mix of other fiction and non-fiction. She is also a librarian with an interest in readers' advisory, and believes fully in Rosenburg's Law: Never apologize for your reading tastes. She has no cats.

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