WITS Voices: Teaching William Steig

By Greg Stump, WITS Writer-in-Residence

Most people who know William Steig’s work think of him as the creator of classic children’s books like Shrek and Sylvester and the Magic Pebble. But in the mid-20th century, Steig created numerous picture books for adults: Persistent Faces, The Lonely Ones, The Rejected Lovers, and many others. Most of these works could be described as existentialist graphic literature, with the artist using captioned illustrations to explore a worldview that seems much colder and anxiety-ridden than fans of his kids’ books might expect.

A common Steig trope was to title his books with an adjective and a noun, and then explore that single theme throughout the book via dozens of separate (though thematically-linked) characters or illustrations. These books aren’t narratives, then, so much as exercises in visual and conceptual thinking: Rejected Lovers shows us all the different possible fates (denial, anger, self-pity, delusion, despair) that await the spurned suitor, through a variety of visual strategies. Some images have backgrounds, while others are vignettes; we see characters from far way or at close range, depending on what approach best serves the content.


As both a teacher and a cartoonist, I’ve been deeply inspired by Steig’s little books, and have borrowed his adjective-noun approach for student projects many times. This is my seventh year as a WITS Writer-in-Residence (or Graphic Novelist-in-Residence, if you want to split hairs) working with the 6th graders at McClure Middle School, and one of my favorite exercises this year has been assigning them to make miniature Steigian works of their own (a few of which are shown in the photo above). I start this activity by displaying a list of adjectives and nouns side by side on a screen, and ask the students to create a combination that evokes a rich, funny, or unexpected theme. Then, they do exactly what Steig did ­– though in a much shorter, 8-page booklet – by exploring that single theme in as many different characters as it takes to fill the book. Here’s a closer look at some of their creations. Read more…