Literary Guide for William Steig’s “Sylvester and the Magic Pebble”

Sylvester and the Magic Pebble
by William Steig

A Caldecott Medal-winning book, William Steig’s Sylvester and the Magic Pebble has been well-loved by multiple generations of children. Published in 1969, Sylvester and the Magic Pebble seems timeless – the fable-like quality of the story paired with Steig’s simple illustrations have allowed the book to appeal to young readers for decades without the story losing its popularity as American culture evolved.

An excellent read for children who are early on in their elementary school careers, the story is about a young donkey named Sylvester and his discovery of a surprising pebble that grants wishes. Unfortunately for Sylvester, however, soon after his discovery of the pebble and its magical powers he encounters a lion, and wishes to be a rock so that he doesn’t have to be afraid. Of course, the pebble turns him into a rock and, as his rock-body has no arms, Sylvester drops the pebble – making him incapable of wishing himself back to being a donkey. Months pass, and his family and neighbors miss him terribly and search high and low for him. One day, his miserable parents decide to have a picnic in order to cheer up. In a serendipitous chain of events (the likes of which can only be found in children’s books), Sylvester’s parents happen upon the magic pebble and accidentally-on-purpose wish him back into their lives.

While the literature guide for Sylvester and the Magic Pebble is designed for first or second grade students (ages 6-8), the story can be appreciated by older elementary students, as well. It is quite a long tale, and includes lots of vocabulary that will be new to first and second grade students. New words present opportunities to practice assessing context in order to find meaning, and young readers can use challenging vocabulary as an opportunity to identify context clues. By thinking about what they know about the story’s characters, looking for clues in illustrations, making inferences based on their own experiences, and even looking a few sentences ahead, children can strengthen their skills in determining the meaning of new words.

Additionally, the story offers young readers the chance to practice making predictions. No strangers to the process of guessing what a story is about, first and second grade students should be able to read (or be read) the title of a story and take a good look at a book’s cover in order to make some good, educated guesses about the story. Within the literature guide are suggestions for points at which to stop reading and discuss predictions for what might come next. Readers may wonder what the pebble will do for Sylvester, what will happen when the lion comes, or what will happen when Sylvester’s parents picnic near his rock-self – and regardless of the accuracy of children’s predictions, working to explain why they have made a particular guess is great practice for recalling details, assessing situations, and making connections to familiar experiences and/or other stories.

Identifying the moral of the story can help to provide some valuable learning experiences, too. The story sends a “be careful what you wish for” message, warning readers to put careful consideration into their wishes (and even the wording of their wishes!) before bringing new things into their lives. Young children – still in the throes of impulsive behaviors – often struggle to consider the effects of choices that they make. Considering the consequences of someone else’s (in this case, Sylvester’s) impulsive decisions may help them to gain insight into the importance of making sound decisions.

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