First edition cover
|Cover artist||William Steig|
|Publisher||Farrar, Straus and Giroux|
|October 17, 1990|
|Media type||Print (Paperback and Hardcover)|
|LC Class||PZ7.S8177 Sh 1990|
Shrek! is a humorous fantasy picture book published in 1990 by American book writer and cartoonist William Steig, about a repugnant green monster who leaves home to see the world and ends up marrying an ugly princess. The book was generally well-received upon publication, with critics praising the illustrations, originality, and writing. Critics have also described Shrek as an antihero and noted the book's themes of satisfaction and self-esteem. The book served as the basis for the first Shrek movie and the popular Shrek film series over a decade after its publication.
William Steig was a cartoonist at The New Yorker from 1930 to the 1960s. He created over 1,600 cartoons and was dubbed “The King of Cartoons”. However, he intensely disliked creating advertisements, and started writing children's books instead at the age of sixty-one. Steig was eighty-three when he wrote the book.
His books became known for “graphically repeated themes of stark separation and warm reunion” between parents and their children while maintaining the "wit" that was characteristic of his cartoons. The books also commonly included themes such as separation and transformation. Steig's artwork in his children's books was noted for "rich" use of colors and were made using watercolor painting and ink. They were compared to his cartoons that had been published in The New Yorker.
Shrek is a repugnant, green-skinned, fire-breathing, seemingly indestructible monster who enjoys causing misery with his repulsiveness. After his parents decide that he has come of age, he is (literally) kicked out of their swamp. Shrek soon encounters a witch, who, in exchange for his rare specimens of lice, reads his fortune: using the magic words "Apple Strudel", he will meet a donkey who will take him to a castle, where he will battle a knight and marry a princess who is even uglier than he.
Excitedly on his way, Shrek encounters a scything peasant from whom he steals and eats his pheasant, counters an attack from thunder, lightning and rain by eating lightning's fiercest bolt, and knocks out a dragon with his fiery breath. However, he is disturbed by a dream in which he is helpless to being hugged and kissed by a multitude of children. Awakening, he meets the donkey, who takes him to the Nutty Knight of Crazy Castle.
The Knight is offended by Shrek's demands to enter the castle and attempts to smite him, to which Shrek responds with a fire blast that sends him into the moat. Upon entering the castle, Shrek is terrified when he appears to be surrounded by an army of similarly hideous creatures, but regains his resolve upon discovering that he is in the hall of mirrors. He finally meets the princess; mutually smitten by their shared ugliness, they marry and live "horribly ever after, scaring the socks off all who fell afoul of them".
The journalist David Denby wrote that "For all its acrid temper, “Shrek!” was very much a charmed fairy tale: the perfectly ugly creature finds his perfectly ugly mate." Publishers Weekly gave the book a positive review, praising Steig's "epigrammatic genius" and calling the book an "engrossing and satisfying tale". A reviewer for The New York Times highlighted the illustration's and Steig's "perfect-pitch ear for daffy English idiom". Karen Litton in School Library Journal similarly praised the book's illustration's and writing, noting that it was a good book to read aloud.
Michael Dirda for The Washington Post considered the writing and pictures to be "relatively simple," but "such an ingratiating, cheery book that no one will be able to resist it." He did not consider it Steig's best work, but instead a "perfect" modest achievement. A reviewer for Language Arts noted the book's originality, saying that it turned the standards of folk literature "upside down". Other reviewers also highlighted the book's originality. Shrek! also was named among the picture book winners of the 1990 Children's Book Award given by Parents' Choice. Publishers Weekly gave the book several of the 1990 "Cuffies", a children's book award, including "funniest book of the year" and "best opening line".
Some parents objected to the book, feeling it was "unsuitable for children." The scholar Jack Zipes felt that Shrek! was not Steig's best work. Professor Victoria Ford Smith in 2017 considered Steig's artwork "childlike", comparing it to the work of Quentin Blake.
In 2010, Zipes wrote in Tor.com that the book was one of the "best examples of how the fairy tale has been fractured and continually transformed, indicating its radical potential in our digital age, especially with the production and success of the twenty-first century digitally animated films". Zipes noted that the book and its hero ask the question "What is evil? Who causes evil?". He considered Shrek! a parody of "The Story of the Youth Who Went Forth to Learn What Fear Was", a story by the Brothers Grimm, but also considered the book to represent "the outsider, the marginalized, the Other, who could be any of the oppressed minorities in America."
In 2019 Rumaan Alam in The New Yorker highlighted the book as a story where "the bad guy gets a happy ending" and noted that "sometimes life works that way." The author and critic Lee Thomas compared Shrek! to Steig's 1984 Rotten Island as instances where the "devil really slithers into his ghoulish own". Shrek! has been described as having themes of "satisfaction and self-esteem" and being true to yourself.
Steig's Shrek has been described as an antihero who represents someone who is different and is happy with it. When his parents kick Shrek out of his swamp, he is forced to embark on a trip to resolve issues over his subjectivity. According to the professor Lewis Roberts, Shrek experiences several "moments of crisis" in the book, first when he has a nightmare about children and later when he enters the hall of mirrors.The professor Lewis Roberts considers these moments comparable to the Lacanian mirror stage, a psychoanalytic concept relating to the moment when an infant first becomes aware of themselves. Shrek easily beats the dragon because the dragon reminds him of the part of himself he is comfortable with: his ugliness.
Shrek's nightmare is more difficult for Shrek. By presenting it as a two-page spread, which is uncommon in the book, Steig highlights it as an important moment. Because the children are paying Shrek attention and are not repulsed or afraid of him, his "self-image is threatened and his relationship to the Other is destabilized." He has to confront the fact that "his ideal of the horrible is unreachable". Shrek's arrival in the hall of mirrors represents him "coming to terms with his own reflection" and learning to be “happier than ever to be exactly what he was.” However, the images he sees in the mirror still do not match what he looks like and represent an ideal rather than reality.
After the two crises, Shrek is not completed until he meets the princess, who is uglier than him. Roberts concludes by saying that "The book rehearses the crises of subjectivity all children must face, and then reassures and amuses its readers by showing how even a hideous figure such as Shrek can find resolution."
Steven Spielberg acquired the rights for the book in 1991, planning to produce a traditionally animated film based on the book. However, DreamWorks ended up acquiring the rights for the book for approximately $500,000 and putting it in active development in November 1995. Shrek was released on May 18, 2001, starring the voices of Mike Myers, Eddie Murphy, Cameron Diaz, and John Lithgow. The film was a critical and commercial success and won the first ever Academy Award for Best Animated Feature. It was followed by several other films, including: Shrek 2 (2004), Shrek the Third (2007), and Shrek Forever After (2010). The first film was adapted into a Broadway musical called Shrek The Musical in 2008.
Several critics highlighted differences between Shrek the movie and Steig's original version, including the addition of characters and changing the plot and morals. However, Steig said that he liked the movie and it dramatically increased sales of his book. Steig said of the film: "It’s vulgar, it’s disgusting — and I love it!"
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