The cover of William Steig's book CDB
William Steig (1907-2003), was often way ahead of the curve. His book of drawings, The Lonely Ones (1942), prefigured the now common practice of satirizing personal neurosis; his children’s book, Shrek (1990), anticipated DreamWorks success with slimy green Ogres; and his CDB (1968) not only predicted vanity license plate abbreviations, it suggested the rise of Instant Messenger, SMS, iChat, and Twitter shorthand. Although the last was his most prescient work, Steig never got the credit as grandfather of the tweet.
The cover of William Steig's book The Lonely Ones
Those who missed his hilariously morose graphic commentaries in The New Yorker (starting 1930 he created over 100 covers and countless cartoons) may remember Steig as a children’s book author and illustrator. He won the Caldecott Medal with his Sylvester and the Magic Pebble in the early 1970s and other honors quickly followed for his quirky takes on the venerable children’s picture book. He often focused his pathos and bathos on innocent young folk and young folk-like animals as they routinely ran into problems and obstacles in their quests for happiness and fulfillment. Roland of Roland the Minstrel Pig narrowly misses being crushed; Sylvester, a donkey, is turned into a rock. Amos the mouse in Amos and Boris falls overboard in mid-ocean while Boris the whale is beached after a hurricane. Abel, another mouse in Abel's Island, is marooned for a year, and Pearl, a young pig in The Amazing Bone, is almost cooked by a pesky fox. Shrek was, of course, a poor, misunderstood ogre, who rises from the muck to become a wealthy, better understood ogre. Eventually all find redemption, but you’ll have to read them yourself to find out how (and why).
Steig was keen at combining innocence and menace, and like James Thurber, his sketchy line captured the essence of emotion. His drawings were shorthand for expression; similarly CDB was shorthand for conception. For over 40 years this book has both perplexed and excited its young and old readers, offering challenges and frustrations with a satisfying punch line. In the original Windmill paperback edition a summary of the book reads as follows: “Letters and words are used to create the sounds of words and simple sentences 4 u 2 figure out with the aid of illustrations.” This is a fairly accurate description of SMS-speak. Yet since the human capacity in the digital age to perceive such word games without visual aids has evolved to such a high degree of mastery, pictures are no longer necessary. Nonetheless, in this earlier stage of development (and since this was, after all, a picture book), Steig’s pictures were necessary.
Above: spreads from William Steig's book CDB
CDB begins with a sketch of a boy and girl looking intently at a flower, as the boy says: C D B! (see the bee) / D B S A B-Z B. (the bee’s a buzz bee) / O, S N-D (author’s note: this phrase has always confounded me). While the word games are not always easy (particularly if English is not a first language), solving them is habit forming. Here’s another showing two boys in bed together (they’re brothers!!): R U C-P? (are you sleeping?) / S, I M. (yes, I am) / I M 2 (I am too). Here’s another with a picture of a proud chicken: D N S 5 X (the hen has five eggs). And here’s my favorite — because it is so true — showing a little boy looking longingly up at a bigger girl who says: I M 2 O-L 4 U (author’s note: you figure it out, I can’t translate everything for you).
When SMS and Instant Messenger came to my household in the late 90s, I wondered how my son (who was then in his early double digits) picked up the abbrevi-language so quickly. Had he been reading the real estate classifieds (drmn bldg w/ rivr vw), or was it just in the air? I only realized recently, as I was re-reading CDB (and very proud of myself for deciphering I M N A T-P — okay, its one of the easy ones), that this was the holy grail of this digital generation’s mode of communication. It only goes to prove what the writer Wolcott Gibbs said about William Steig in his foreword to The Lonely Ones: “For a good many years, William Steig has been drawing rational, though occasionally disconcerting, pictures. . . It is hard to define the special quality of these works since so many warring elements have gone into them — cruelty and compassion; burlesque and acute social perception. . .” Or maybe it doesn’t prove that. But it does prove that Steig was the grandfather of social networking. A N E 1 AV A P-LM W TH-T?