Flashback Fridays: Be Careful What You Wish For . . .

You’re a young donkey who happens to find a really interesting pebble one day.  You quickly discover this is not just a pebble, it is a magical wishing pebble that will grant you whatever you wish.  Now what exactly should you wish for?

Do you remember:

Sylvester and the Magic Pebble by William Steig (Simon & Schuster, c1969)

There are probably hundreds of stories out there on the subject of wishing and the inherent dangers in wishing carelessly.  You’ll find it in fairy tales, short stories and even full length novels.  However, I think the first place I encountered this lesson was in this 1970 Caldecott award winner by William Steig.

Sylvester is a young donkey who finds a mysterious pebble one day while exploring.  He quickly finds out that this pebble is every kid’s fantasy–a real actual wishing pebble!  No strings attached!  Wow!  Just think of all the things he could wish for!   Sylvester is thinking of all those things too–but before he can even really begin to process the stunning possibilities, he runs into a lion.  This sudden lion causes Sylvester to make a disastrous wish in desperation to be safe.  He wishes to be a rock.  Is he now safe from the lion?  Yes.  Is he able to pick up the pebble and use it? No.  And he’s stuck as a big old rock in the field with no one the wiser about where he is or how he came to be this way.  From kid’s fantasy to kid’s nightmare.  Your parents can’t find you, you can’t move or speak or tell them where you are!  You can’t do anything or save yourself! Not to mention this being dark from the parental perspective too.  His mother and father are desperately looking for him, they check with neighbors, call the police, do everything they’re supposed to.  But they can’t find their son.  Trust William Steig to dig into parental and child hearts alike.

Of course, we are promised a resolution from this nightmare.  After a cold winter and a new Spring, Sylvester’s parents try to get on with life by going out to have a picnic.  They find a nice rock to set out their picnic on and notice an extraordinary pebble next to the rock.  At once they think of Sylvester and how he loved finding new pebbles and rocks to bring home.  They pick up the pebble and place it on the rock/Sylvester.  And they start talking about how they miss Sylvester so much and wish he were back with them.  Sylvester, unaware that the pebble is now upon him, starts miserably wishing the same thing.  That desperate wish is activated, and he becomes himself again, much to his parents joy.  And that’s the real point of the story–the family reuniting and thankful to be together again after this extended ordeal.  The magic pebble, rather than an object for reckless wishes is treated as the much more dangerous item it is and put away.  Possibly to be used at some future point for carefully considered wishes.

Of course this book sent me out looking for magic pebbles as a kid (because, you still want a wishing pebble, of course!)  But it also made me consider that not every wish was a good one.  Parents and kids and even the author can agree that the panicky wish that Sylvester made was not a smart idea.  That not every instantaneous want actually materializes into a wonderful thing.  Steig doesn’t play soft with his audience.  Sylvester’s rash decision causes real trauma for his parents and himself, even if they do reunite in the end–the reader audience is the only one who actually knows the entirety of what’s going on in the story.  When the police are searching all around the rock that is Sylvester, it’s painfully frustrating to know that our protagonist is right there, trapped, but no one knows it.

This book not only is an award-winner, it’s also on a list of books that have been banned or challenged in the past.  The strange controversy stems from the fact that Steig depicts his police officers as pigs.  Apparently this depiction, rather than seen as just a simple part of an entire neighborhood full of anthropomorphic creatures, was interpreted as an offensive comment on police.  It’s a strange bit of controversy as well since the police are shown in a positive and helpful light, even if they aren’t successful.  This seems willful silliness.

If you’re not familiar with William Steig, this is the author who first conjured up Shrek (the book version is not nearly as nice as the movie version), gave us a creepy kidnapping plot with The Amazing Bone (a 1976 Caldecott Honor Book), and made us admire the persistence and courage of Brave Irene.  He’s a remarkable author–and one that rarely does what you’d expect with his stories.  If you’ve not given this children’s author a look–I’d recommend you do.

What’s your favorite Steig?  Comments welcome!

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About Stephanie Whelan

I'm a children's librarian with a life-long love of all things science fiction and fantasy.

Posted on May 9, 2015, in Flashback Fridays, General Posts and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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