Right now, my daughter and I are working through Abel’s Island (Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1976) by American children’s book author William Steig. Unlike Steig’s other picture books, this is a novel in chapters. It is illustrated by Steig in his characteristic style, featuring a mouse named Abel. Abel is a happily married creature who one day, after a glorious picnic with his wife Amanda, is washed away by a violent rainstorm onto an island. Stranded there, he must find a way to escape while surviving day-to-day on his little tract of land. Although the plot of the story revolves around Abel trying to find a means to return to his happy domestic life in the city, the deeper import of this tale is what Abel discovers about himself by being alone. He begins to question himself:
Was it just an accident that he was here on this uninhabited island? Abel began to wonder. Was he being singled out for some reason; was he being tested? If so, why? Didn’t it prove his worth that such a one as Amanda loved him?
The existential questioning aspect of this book I found fascinating and compelling. The enormous challenge for this mouse to get back to the civilization he knows and loves was something I was able to point out to my daughter on our walks through our local park where a creek meets the river in our city. There are some sandy islands in the river and I told my daughter that being stranded on one of those islands was comparable to Abel’s situation in the book. She could then appreciate the difficulty of Abel’s struggle. She certainly feels for Abel and is curious most evenings to know what will become of him.
I’m a big fan of Steig’s picture books — a few of which I’ve read to my son — but reading this little gem of a novel to my daughter has been a real pleasure. My daughter was mildly surprised at hearing that Steig was the creator of the original Shrek and kept plying me with questions about the book (which of course is quite different from the movie!) Have you read any Steig books to your child? What Steig book is your favorite?