In 1970, the late-William Steig won a coveted Caldecott Medal for his children’s book, Sylvester and the Magic Pebble, and although delighted to receive such recognition for his work, the subsequent awards ceremony presented the glossophobic Shrek! author with a problem in the form of an acceptance speech. The nervous letter below was written by Steig a month prior to said event and perfectly illustrates a fear held – in varying degrees – by most.
Incidentally, Steig’s fantastic, endearing acceptance speech was received incredibly well by all in attendance. It can be found in its entirety below the letter.
May 10, ’70
Dear Mr. Heins,
Bob Kraus just read your letter to me (the one about my Caldecott acceptance speech) over the phone. I’m afraid now that in addition to having to make a speech, which for me will be like walking on red hot embers & broken glass, I will have the additional burden of feeling that my speech will leave people dissatisfied & make me seem both ungracious & ungrateful. I sincerely meant what I indicated in the opening of my speech: I would almost rather die than have to formally address a group of people larger than two in number. I’ve successfully avoided doing so for 50 years; I’ve been depressed ever since January & will not realize happiness again until after June 30th when my trial is over. I’ve told this to many people, but no one believes me & I feel like a character in a Kafka novel. Please believe me when I say that speaking only a few words will require a superhuman effort for me; that I can no longer, in my sixties, hope to change my character; that I am making this effort only out of genuine gratitude; and also because I worry about my publisher, who could be an innocent victim of my neurosis.
I want to make more books, books good enough to win prizes, & I’m hoping that my inability to make speeches will not hamper my progress.
William Steig’s Caldecott Award Acceptance Speech, 1970
The last time I spoke formally to a group of people anywhere near this size was over a half-century ago, at P.S. 53 in the Bronx. I very quickly got tongue-tied and forgot what I was supposed to say. I have avoided this kind of confrontation ever since then. I was a poor speaker at age ten, and I’ve grown rustier with the years. So — to reduce my discomfort, and yours — I shall make this a short speech. Anyway, as a matter of form, it should not be as long as the little book that landed me here.
Among the things that affected me most profoundly as a child — and consequently as an adult — were certain works of art: Grimm’s fairy tales, Charlie Chaplin movies, Humperdinck’s opera Hansel and Gretel, the Katzenjammer Kids, Pinocchio. Pinocchio especially. I can still remember after this long stretch of time the turmoil of emotions, the excitement, the fears, the delights, and the wonder with which I followed Pinocchio’s adventures.
Often, at work, or in everyday living, I do things or have experiences for which I find symbols that somehow derive from Collodi’s great book. Recently I had a dream in which I was being led towards a place of judgment by two policemen, each with a firm grip on one of my arms. No doubt I was feeling guilty about something. But the scene was right out of a similar episode in Pinocchio, and I am sure that was its derivation. And it is very likely that Sylvester became a rock and then again a live donkey because I had once been so deeply impressed with Pinocchio’s longing to have his spirit encased in flesh instead of wood.
I am well aware not only of the importance of children — whom we naturally cherish and who we also embody our hopes for the future — but also of the importance of what we provide for them in the way of art; and I realize that we are competing with a lot of other cultural influences, some of which beguile them in false directions.
Art, including juvenile literature, has the power to make any spot on earth the living center of the universe, and unlike science, which often gives us the illusion of understanding things we really do not understand, it helps us to know life in a way that still keeps before us the mystery of things. It enhances the sense of wonder. And wonder is respect for life. Art also stimulates the adventurousness and the playfulness that keep us moving in a lively way and that lead us to useful discovery.
Books for children are something I take seriously. I am hopeful that more and more the work I do for children, as well as the work I do for adults, will approach the condition of art. I believe that what this award and this ceremony represent is our mutual striving in the same direction, and I feel encouraged by the faith you have expressed in me in honoring my book with the Caldecott Medal.
I want to express my appreciation and gratitude to my friend and publisher, Bob Kraus of Windmill Books, who has the insight that I — and others like me — could make a contribution in this field, and who, because he himself is an artist, recognizes that the artist-publisher relationship is a symbiotic relationship, mutually beneficial not only in terms of monetary reward but in the more lasting reward of producing worthwhile work and being culturally useful.
Finally, I want to say that I still feel the pleasure and the gratitude that I felt when Mary Elizabeth Ledlie telephoned me from Chicago. And I love you all. I love you because you must love me. Anyway, that’s how I understand your liking my work, which is a large part of me. Thank you.