I enjoyed William Steig’s Sylvester and the Magic Pebble years ago, but not so much that I set out to find everything Steig had written. More recently, I read Dr. De Soto and didn’t love it. I also remember feeling that the cover of The Amazing Bone is a bit creepy; flashbacks to childhood nightmares of wolves in the woods. So I never read it. That was the extent of my knowledge of Steig till this week when I bought Amos and Boris for my grandson’s birthday. It was on my daughter’s wishlist for her children’s library.
When the book arrived, I was glancing through it, skimming the text when my eye caught the description of Amos, a mouse, using “his most savage strength” to launch the boat he had built by hand. I started reading word for word. Steig’s use of language draws more vivid pictures, for me, than his illustrations, as captivating as they are in their simplicity.
One night, in a phosphorescent sea, he marveled at the sight of some whales spouting luminous water; and later, lying on the deck of his boat gazing at the immense, starry sky, the tiny mouse Amos, a little speck of a living thing in the vast living universe, felt thoroughly akin to it all.
Amos is so overwhelmed by “the beauty and mystery of everything” that he falls into the sea, his boat goes on without him, and he never sees it again. The tiny mouse is treading water in the midst of the immense ocean.
After managing to stay afloat throughout the night, he’s starting to wonder what it will feel like to drown when a whale looms up and asks what sort of creature Amos is. Boris, the whale, says he would consider it a privilege to rescue Amos because no other whale has ever had such an opportunity. On the way back to Amos’ home, “They became the closest friends possible.”
Boris admired the delicacy, the quivering daintiness, the light touch, the small voice, the gemlike radiance of the mouse. Amos admired the bulk, the grandeur, the power, the purpose, the rich voice, and the abounding friendliness of the whale.
When they part near the shore of Amos’ home, they realize they will probably never see each other again, but Amos tells Boris to remember that if he ever needs help he’ll be more than glad to give it. Neither of them can imagine how a mouse could ever help a whale, but, of course, the need arises.
You’ll have to read the end for yourself to find out how a mouse is able to help a whale, but it does end well.
Besides the lovely language, Steig includes details that would make some interesting studies. We see a bit of Amos’ progress in boat building. There is a thorough list of supplies he needs for a voyage. Amos brags that he’s a mammal, “the highest form of life,” and is surprised to learn that Boris is also a mammal. What is sounding? Could a tidal wave beach a whale? What is phosphorescence? What are horse mackerel, plankton, or cuttlefish? Where is the Ivory Coast? How long could a mouse survive without fresh water?
You know . . . my grandson is only two years old. He would never know if I decided to keep this book for myself.