I don’t remember when I first read Sylvester and the Magic Pebble, but as William Steig was one of my favorite authors growing up, I must have read it at approximately the proper age group.
The plot is fairly simple: Sylvester, a mule, loves collecting pebbles and, not surprisingly given the title, one day he finds a magic pebble which grants wishes. He trots home, carrying the pebble and thinking of all the things he and his family and friends might wish for…when he notices a Very Hungry Mean Lion staring at him from behind some bushes. In terrified haste, he can’t think of any sensible wishes1 and so wishes “I were a rock.” Not surprisingly, he’s forced to remain a rock as, without hands, he’s unable to pick the magic pebble up to unwish his current form.
Needless to say, his parents are frantic and search everywhere, but after a month must concede that they’re unlikely to find their son again. Weeks turn to months, and months to seasons; when the next spring rolls around, his parents set out on a picnic2 to console themselves and just happen to set up on Sylvester the rock. They see the magic pebble lying nearby and set it on the rock, as they know (surprise surprise) that it’s just the sort of thing Sylvester would have liked. Sylvester doesn’t realize that the pebble’s lying on his “back”–rocks haven’t got much in the way of sensory organs–but wishes to be restored nevertheless with the expected results. The story ends happily with the family reunited and the pebble locked safely away for a time when they might want to wish for something.
As with many kids stories I’ve read, it ends with a moral of sorts: happiness can’t always be bought with wishes but can be found in the love of our family. Still worth reading though, as I and others have done since 1970, although there are many newer books that serve more subtly. And yes, this is the book that got banned in a few communities because the police were portrayed as pigs; I have no idea if Steig meant that the way so many interpreted it, though it wouldn’t surprise me. Certainly it seems to have swooshed straight over the heads of most kids who read the book.
1wishing the lion were something harmless or that he were safely home
2complete with alfalfa sandwiches, pickled oats and timothy compote. Well, what would mules eat on a picnic?