Written and Illustrated by William Steig
Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, 1969
Awards: Caldecott Medal
Sylvester Duncan lived with his mother and father at Acorn Road in Oatsdale. One of his hobbies was collecting pebbles of unusual shape and color.
What makes this book so dangerous? The police characters are portrayed by anthropomorphic pigs.
Sylvester finds a bright red pebble on a walk one rainy day and picks it up for his collection. A few moments later, he says that he wishes the rain would stop and it does. Through a couple of tests, he realizes that any wish he makes while holding the pebble will come true. On his way home, he comes across a hungry lion and in his panic, wishes he was a rock. He instantly becomes a rock and the lion walks away, puzzled. Sylvester tries to wish himself back to being a donkey, but he’s not touching the pebble, which is on the ground near him. His parents worry and organize search parties, but no one ever finds him. Seasons change and in the spring, his parents are trying to find a way to move on with life. They go for a picnic in the exact spot where Sylvester the rock is. He is very excited to know they’re near. His father spots the pebble and picks it up, putting it on the rock for his mother to see. His mother wishes that Sylvester were there and when Sylvester wishes to be himself again, he changes back into a donkey. His parents are overjoyed to see him and they head home, where they put the pebble in a safe. There’s no need to use the pebble, because they now have everything they want.
Author/illustrator William Steig has a way of telling a story that emphasizes the emotions of the characters and makes the reader feel more deeply for them as a result. He also creates very believable moments, even in fictional and fantastical worlds. I imagine that most people have had at least one instance when they just acted without thinking, as Sylvester does when encountering the lion, so you’re reading about this and nodding your head, with the memory of a time when you did something similar. And when you get to the part where Sylvester’s parents are right there and he’s stuck being a rock and can’t communicate with them, it’s absolutely heartbreaking. This, of course, serves to make their reunion even more joyful.
A revised version was released in 1997 which restores the original colors to the watercolor artwork and includes the text of Mr. Steig’s Caldecott Medal speech from 1970. I really love the artwork and its colorful depiction of the characters and their environment, particularly in the drawings of the rock in all the different seasons as time passes and the warm and lovely final picture of the family all gathered on the couch, so happy to be together. I remember not liking this book very much when I read it to my young kids, mostly because the parents’ sadness at the disappearance of their son was too much for me. The book was banned in Illinois at the request of the Illinois Police Association and similar challenges were issued in 11 other states.
And what did we learn? What I take away from this book is that you should always be very careful with wishes, because you never know when they might come true.