Friday, October 1, 2010

Review: Sylvester and the Magic Pebble

For our last review for Banned Books Week 2010 we have:

Title: Sylvester and the Magic Pebble
Author/Illustrator: William Steig
Publisher: Atheneum
Year: 1970, re-released in 2010
Format: Hardcover, also available in Paperback
Pages: 42
Age Range: Preschooler, Early Reader
Kid Love Factor: Boo is too young, so negligible

Adult Sanity Factor: 3.5/5

Sylvester and the Magic Pebble is the story of Sylvester Duncan, a donkey and only child.  Sylvester likes to collect pebbles, and he finds a doozy one day; a magic stone that grants wishes to the person (animal?) holding it.  Sylvester dreams of how he and his parents can use the pebble as he returns home, but he runs into a lion.  In a moment of panic, Sylvester wishes he was a rock so the lion won't eat him.  Fortunately this works, and the confused lion saunters away.  Unfortunately rocks can't hold pebbles and Sylvester is stuck.  Sylvester is apparently not the brightest pebble on the beach.  It's a very sad year for Sylvester, his frantic parents, and the animal townspeople who help in the search. But have no fear. It all works out in the end.

To his great surprise the rain stopped.  It didn't stop gradually as rains usually do.  It CEASED.  The drops vanished on the way down, the clouds disappeared, everything was dry, and the sun was shining as if the rain had never existed.

William Steig doesn't write like most modern picture book authors.  There are a lot more words to Sylvester's tale than are usual, and many of them are fantastic vocabulary stretchers--extraordinary, remarkable, ceased, perplexed, billion, sassafras, exclamations...

Unlike another picture book on challenged book lists, Sylvester literally being a jackass isn't why this book was banned.  Steig only ever calls Sylvester a donkey.  What Steig did do, however, is draw the town's police officer as pigs.  They aren't the only pigs in town, and apart from being unable to locate Sylvester (and really, he's become a rock. Can you blame them?) they're presented as sympathetic rather than incompetent.  I'm guessing Steig drew them as pigs as a visual joke for parents rather than as political commentary, but whatever the reason, some have become offended enough to challenge and ban the book.

Boo wasn't interested in the book at all.  In fact, he slammed it shut on me twice.  It was only by pretending to be reading it to Daddy that I managed to get all the way through it while he was in the room.  Please don't take this as a slight against Sylvester.  Boo does this often when books have too many words on a page for him.  Normally I'd just take the book back to the library and make a note to try it again circa 2012, however we're reviewing this one now because we haven't yet made it to the top of the hold list for any of our other banned picture book options.

Sylvester and the Magic Pebble is a story about something we see regularly on the news: a missing child.  We see the devastation of his parents and Sylvester's loneliness, but it's presented in a relatively soothing manner.  We know Sylvester is safe, if unhappy, and that everything works out in the end.  While Sylvester's misfortune isn't going to recur in the real world, it's a good opportunity to discuss the consequences of rash actions.

Autism Spectrum Bonus: Note: Since this story isn't one Boo and I have really shared, this section is pretty hypothetical from my perspective.  A nice conversation on personal preferences, hopes, fears, and dreams for the future might arise from talking about what each of you would wish for if you found a magic pebble.  The fact that Sylvester has a (special) interest in rocks might make the character appealing to budding geologists.  As I mentioned above, Sylvester acts hastily without thinking things through and both he and his parents suffer the consequences, which may be a good discussion point for overly impetuous kids.  There are plenty of emotional moments to discuss, from Sylvester's amazement at the pebble, his panic at the lion, his parents' worry and eventual resigned depression, and everyone's pure joy at the end.

Bottom Line:
Sylvester isn't an ordinary picture book.  It has big words, real emotional trauma, visually teases the police, covers an entire year, and focuses many of its pages on adult characters.  It is, however, an excellent book, which I hope Boo comes to appreciate.


Sylvester and the Magic Pebble on

Sylvester and the Magic Pebble on


  1. I agree that the book is probably better for preschool age on up. I didn't even try reading it to my daughter until she was four. As far as content, I didn't see anything that set off red flags. In fact, I didn't even notice the officer pig characters until I read about this book in one of the banned book lists.

  2. My daughter does the same when there are too many words on a page. She quickly loses interest.


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