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Another Artist I Love but First

Last week I forgot to say Mazel Tov to Jon Ossof, Georgia's first Jewish senator, and now the youngest member of that august group. I remember when I was appalled to realize there was a Supreme Court justice my age and now there are senators younger than my children. Even so, I still feel younger than Springtime.

Here's a favorite artist/writer who showed up regularly on the cover of the New Yorker-one hundred and twenty times, over the course of seventy-three years.

William Steig


Here's his cover for May 9, the very day my dear cousin Kate was born. (Don't worry, Kate, I photo-shopped out the year.)

William Steig's art is wonderful but his writing is sublime. At the age of sixty, in a move to make money, he began to write for children. His most famous book is probably Shrek, the horrible ogre who lives happily ever after, because it was made into a movie. But there's Dr. DeSoto, a mouse dentist who can't refuse to treat a fox with a toothache, but must find a way not to get eaten. There's Tiffky Doofky, my son Sam's favorite, about a gentlemanly dog who's a garbage collector.

My favorite, with writing so beautiful I took it to my writing workshop when I was asked to bring in something that inspired me, is Amos and Boris.

Amos is a mouse who lives by the sea. He builds a boat, names it the Rodent, and sets sail.

Listen to this: "One night, in a phosphorescent sea, he marveled at the sight of some whales spouting luminous water; and later, lying on the deck of his boat gazing at the immense, starry sky, the tiny mouse Amos, a little speck of a living thing in the vast living universe, felt thoroughly akin to it all. Overwhelmed by the beauty and mystery of everything, he rolled over and over and right off the deck of his boat and into the sea."

At this point, Molly, age four, listening to me read, said, "Uh oh."

Just as Amos is wondering what it will be like to die and if there will be other mice in Heaven, a whale breaks the surface and looms over him. It's just like that scene in Castaway when a whale comes right up to Tom Hanks' raft to get a look at him.

When Amos tells the whale that he's not a fish but a mammal, the highest form of life, the whale replies,

"Holy clam and cuttlefish! (How I would love a reason to say, "Holy clam and cuttlefish")

I'm a mammal too! Call me Boris." And Boris agrees to take Amos home.

As they travel along they become "the closest possible friends and developed a deep admiration for one another."

Here's the part I love;

"Boris admired the delicacy, the quivering daintiness, the light touch, the small voice, the gemlike radiance of the mouse. Amos admired the bulk, the grandeur, the power, the purpose, the rich voice, and the abounding friendliness of the whale."

When they reach Amos's home they pledge to be friends forever, even though they can't be together. Amos thanks Boris and says, "If you ever need my help I'd be more than glad to give it." Boris laughs to himself, "How could that little mouse ever help me? Little as he is, he's all heart. I love him and I'll miss him terribly."

Well, the time comes, after Hurricane Yetta, when Boris desperately needs help. I won't spoil the ending for you. Give yourself a treat and go to your nearest independent bookstore and spend a happy hour in the children's department-maybe spend a few bucks there, I'm sure they'd appreciate it.

Just so you can sleep tonight, I'll tell you that Amos is extremely clever.

Steig's daughter, Maggie Steig, said about her Dad, "His essential self was a great appreciator. When he looked at nature, when he looked at animals, when he looked at people he loved, his look always said, 'You delight me.'"

He's another one I wish I'd known. I"m so glad his work lives after him.

January 15, 2021

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