Roland the Minstrel Pig, The Toy Brother, The Zabajaba Jungle,
all by William Steig; Farrar Straus Giroux, $18.99 apiece.
The republication of three William Steig books is cause for celebration, as his extraordinary talent for the whimsical, funny, strange and mysterious is on full display, with delightful characters, both animal and human, and marvelous conversation, both animal and human. “Roland” (his first book, published in 1968) was dedicated to his daughter Maggie, and she recalls, in a note to readers, playing imagination games with her father, watching animals and wondering, “What do you think they’re talking about? What are they thinking?” The delightful “Roland the Minstrel Pig,” somewhat similar to his later Caldecott Honor book “The Amazing Bone,” features a talented pig (“a natural musician, from his hoofs to his snout”), who leaves the safety of home and friends to make his fortune and meets a crafty fox who promises to introduce him to the king (“they started off with brisk steps, Roland dreaming and the fox scheming”). The trusting Roland finds himself suspended from a tree branch over a fire and is singing a mournful farewell song (“Farewell, dear world, dear hill, dear shore,” one of several songs Steig includes) that catches the ear of the king, a lion of course, who just happens to be “passing by on his palanquin.” A sample quote from the king: “Who are you, strange pig?” The surreal, dream adventure “The Zabajaba Jungle” (1987) finds Leonard fighting his way into the jungle, with no idea how he got there. He rescues a butterfly, is coaxed into drinking nectar from a strange flower, then hauled off by “mandrills with blue behinds” to face a tribunal of three judges and escapes only to find his parents calmly seated in an enormous bottle. (Sample line: Leonard shining his flashlight into the blackness: “all he sees is what he saw before – the vegetable universe.”) “The Toy Brother” (1996) is a hilarious take on the fairy tale trope of brothers vying for their father’s favor, as alchemist Magnus Bede makes his obnoxious elder son Yorick his apprentice and Yorick concocts a potion that shrinks him to the size of a cockroach, delighting his younger brother Charles. A sample quote from Magnus: “Ginger! That’s a fish from another pond. Is it any wonder there was no transmogrification!”)
– Jean Westmoore