We’ve started our schoolyear with William Steig’s Abel’s Island as our first “for fun” read-aloud. Both daughters (7th and 4th grade) liked it and were very responsive. I think Older Daughter appreciated it as a kinder, gentler Robinson Crusoe tale, and for younger Daughter it was a home-run, plain and simple.
Written and illustrated by Steig, the story is paced well and moves right along, but some of the themes are rich and surprisingly sophisticated. Abel the mouse — full name Abelard Hassam de Chirico Flint — is newly married to Amanda (also a mouse) when a hurricane carries him off. He ends up plunging over a waterfall and getting stranded on an island, where he must learn how to survive, how to keep hope alive, and how to fend off loneliness.
Whereas before his adventure Abel was quite the upper-crust mouse with tastes tending toward art, literature and fine cuisine, during his year of isolation he must learn to feed himself in the wild, stay warm in winter, and outsmart predators. When he meets a friend (the frog Gower), he also has to learn to survive disappointment, for Gower swims away and forgets him instead of sending the promised help.
I’ve included some spoilers here, but I won’t give away the ending entirely. Suffice it to say the tale was a success for this family, drawing forth plenty of laughter as well as occasional pithy literary critical comments and predictions. There was enough humor to offset the seriousness of Abel’s predicament and his emotional reality as he works through the experience. Steig accomplished something remarkable here, presenting his young audience with a complex story (occasionally complex vocabulary as well) without aiming over their heads or dragging them down. I recommend it for the 8-10 year old range in particular, but it’s one of those stories that can be appreciated by all ages.
Next up will be Pinocchio, a classic I’ve thus far neglected. Apparently the real tale is a different animal than the Disney version. I look forward to delving in with two of my favorite people.