Friday, March 12, 2010


William Steig ~ Farrar Straus Giroux, 1990

This morning, I realized that the wonderful Shrek! was having its 20th anniversary... meaning that now, it's officially a vintage book. Let's welcome it into the fold, kids! As you longtime readers know, I was turned off by this book even before I read it because of its affiliation with the movie. Not that I'm bashing Mike Myers, mind you... I just naively assumed that, like its celluloid cousin, it would be full of fart jokes, potty humor and Smash Mouth references. Then, I checked out an audio compilation of Steig's books from the library, and through divine performances by Stanley Tucci and Meryl Streep, the whole family fell in love with both Shrek and Steig-- hook, line and stinker. (Not to mention it was the beginning of my son's undying devotion and love for the audio book format. One Charlotte's Web, one Trumpet of the Swan, countless Roald Dahl, tons 'o Kevin Henkes-Dr. Seuss-Shel Silverstein-Maurice Sendak, The Little Prince, endless rounds of the My Father's Dragon trilogy, two Narnia books, Seven Harry Potter books -- we love you Jim Dale! -- and two Lemony Snickets down and you could actually call my son's audio love an obsession. But anyways...)

Of all Steig's books, I believe the writing in Shrek! exemplifies his genius. Steig's words are beyond witty and so hugely original that you can spot his signature in a line or two of text.

His mother was ugly and his father was ugly, but Shrek was uglier than the two of them put together. By the time he toddled, Shrek could spit flame a full ninety-nine yards and vent smoke from either ear. With just a look he cowed the reptiles in the swamp. Any snake dumb enough to bite him instantly got convulsions and died. One day Shrek's parents hissed things over and decided it was about time their little darling was out in the world doing his share of the damage.

So, Shrek makes his way and meets a witch "busy boiling bats in turpentine and turtle juice." She tells him his fortune--that he is to meet a donkey who will take him to a knight he must battle to win the heart of an ugly princess. The hilarity continues...

Wherever Shrek went, every living creature fled.
How it tickled him to be so repulsive.

He meets bad weather and a dragon and a peasant and has a horrid dream that children are hugging and kissing him in a field of flowers and finally hooks up with the jackass who takes him to "the nutty knight. Who guards the entrance. To the crazy castle. Where the repulsive princess. Waits."

They soon came to a drawbridge where a suit of armor stood. Shrek knocked on the breastplate and demanded:

"Who dwells inside this armor, and also in yonder castle?"

"In here a fearless knight, in there a well-born fright" was the answer.

"It's my princess!" said Shrek. "The one I'm to wed!"

"Over my dead body!" roared the fearless knight.

"Over your dead body," Shrek agreed.

It isn't until Shrek meets his disgusting doppelganger that the story comes to a brilliant close.

Said Shrek: "Oh ghastly you, with lips of blue, your ruddy eyes with carmine sties enchant me...."

Said the princess: "Your nose is so hairy, oh , let us not tarry, your look is so scary, I think we should marry."

Shrek snapped at her nose. She nipped at his ear. They clawed their way into each other's arms. Like fire and smoke, these two belonged together. So they got hitched as soon as possible. And they lived horribly ever after, scaring the socks off all who fell afoul of them.

Really, I can't recommend this book highly enough. Steig was a master and a brilliant soul. A true artist with a knack for a turn of phrase. He made all things ugly into fairy tales, and allowed us to cheer for the ogre, warts and all. No small feat in a world where beauty is king.

Also by:
The Amazing Bone
Amos & Boris
Rotten Island
Yellow & Pink
The Zabajaba Jungle
Gorky Rises
Tiffky Doofky
Father Palmer's Wagon Ride
Solomon the Rusty Nail


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David L Rattigan said...

Wow, I had no idea Shrek was a book before it was a film. (Not that I've seen even the film.)

Looks cool. Has a Quentin Blake vibe to it.

Camilla said...

"They clawed their way into each other's arms." My dream love affair!!

I have adored Shrek The Picture Book for exactly twenty years, and WISH I had gotten to meet William Steig in person. Burgin, do you guys know Rotten Island and Amos & Boris? Two of my absolute faves. And Spinky Sulks doesn't suck either!

Tracey said...

I had no idea that Shrek was from a book. Like you, I would have not even opened the book because I would have thought it would be snippets from the movie. My children are huge fans of audible books from the library and! I have added these to our wish list. Thanks for the other suggestions as well.

Christina Rodriguez said...

This is indeed more charming than I'd figured the source material to be! The princess is hilariously ugly, and I really like the prose.

Hard to believe that books from 1990 already qualify as vintage... I would never have thought that the books from my childhood would be vintage so soon.

Burgin Streetman said...

camilla, of course we have those books!... if you think I'm not attempting to raise a children's book illustrator, you are surely mistaken.

john & catherine said...

My goal too (To raise children's book illustrators)! My two are still toddlers. Do you have any other tips, besides the exposure to all this wonderful stuff?

Burgin Streetman said...

Not really... basically just read to them all the time. We are never without books... if we are not moving, we are reading... and for new parents, skip the board books... for real babies they are fine... but gosh, when they are little and still can't get around, you have a captive audience so go for the longer books. i read to my son from the get go and he never got bored... he would sit and listen rapt for as long as I was willing to read. if you start early enough and do it enough, it just becomes part of their deal.

but you have to enjoy it, otherwise it won't work... if i don't enjoy reading a certain book to my son, i get rid of it immediately. if you get the stuff that is really well-written and engaging, it will hold your attention... how do you expect them to sit through something that you're not willing to?

if you put in the time early, the payoff is huge. i can't recommend it enough.

have fun!

Swati said...

When I read the book, I was so appalled by how they had changed the entire premise of the book around in the movie, celebrating cuteness instead of 'ugliness' in which the original Shrek revels.

Cissy said...

Love your last comment on this's so absolutely true. I used to worry that my kids wouldn't love reading as much as I do, but it turns out that books are such a part of our lives that the love came effortlessly. My heart is happy when I hear the kids begging for just a little more reading time at night.

john & catherine said...

Thanks! I hope mine will turn out like your little guy.

Kristie said...

I never knew Shrek was a book first! That is really neat!

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