The lion and the mouse

I’ve just caught up with a recent New Yorker article about my favourite children’s book – ‘Stuart Little’ by E.B. White. Apparently, it took EB White more than seven years to write the book, although the article suggests he’d been working towards writing it for most his life. (“He’d had a pet mouse as a child; he thought he looked a little mousy himself. In 1909, when he was nine, he won a prize for a poem about a mouse.” And sometime in the 1920s, White fell asleep on a train and “dreamed of a small character who had the features of a mouse, was nicely dressed, courageous, and questing.” White started writing about his ‘mouse-child’ soon after that, and named him Stuart – but he didn’t get down to it seriously for ages. The book wasn’t finished until 1945 and first published later that year.)

As you’ll know if you’ve read this excellent book, Stuart Little is a mouse who’s born to the Little family in America. The book is the story of his development into a kind of Don Quixote character, and it ends in a unusually abrupt and unresolved way. The article cites this as a possibly distressing characteristic, although as someone who’s read both this book and EB White’s later and more famous ‘Charlotte’s Web’ to many children, I’d say that the latter is the more obviously distressing. (I’m not saying that the distress is inappropriate in ‘Charlotte’s Web’: I think quite the opposite, in fact. But it’s certainly there.)

“Stuart Little’ was banned (banned!! that wonderful mouse!!) in some American libraries for a time because the powerful children’s librarian at the New York Public Library took against it – perhaps because of its unresolved ending (which I find curiously satisfying) or because of Stuart’s unconventional arrival as a child in a human household (but more of that later). Or maybe she had no taste for true genius.

But here’s my point – well, three of them, actually. Number One: It’s perfectly OK to leave children in doubt about how a story might end. My own favourite books are often those where you know the story goes on after the book ends, but you’re not sure exactly how it’ll develop – and there’s no reason on earth that books for young people shouldn’t do that, too.

Number Two: I finally understand why I love books about quests! It’s undoubtedly because, when I was ten years old, I read a book where a courageous mouse sets off on a quest, believing against the odds that he was heading in the right direction to find his heart’s desire. And that set a benchmark for my future reading.

Number Three: The fuss about Stuart, as a mouse, being born to the human Little family strikes me as weirdly incongruous. Where will you stop, if you once start looking for simple reality in a story based on imaginative fantasy? The article says that in the original editions, Stuart was ‘born’ to the Little family, but in later ones EB White made a tiny change. “Mrs Frederick C. Little’s second son is no longer born. He arrives.” I am delighted and proud to say that my battered old copy – bought for me in New Zealand towards the end of the 1950s – is one of the ‘born’ originals.

Ignore the recent film. Read the book: it’s still proudly in print after 63 years.

Here’s the link to the article:

http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2008/07/21/080721fa_fact_lepore/

 

 

 

2 Responses to “The lion and the mouse”

  1. Alison Says:

    I am always fascinated when I learn about what books have been banned and why. I always try to teach my students at least one “banned” book per year (luckily I work at a school that supports me in this venture!)

    White always wrote about very real dilemmas in his fantastical world. The first White book I read was “The Trumpet of the Swan,” in which Louis, the swan, must decide whether he should compensate for his muteness by slicing his webbed foot in order to be able to play a trumpet. Of course, doing so means that he can no longer swim like the other swans – he can only go in circles. I often wonder as an adult if the decisions that I make in my life will leave me “swimming in circles.” White was an exceptional writer.

  2. Timur Alhimenkov Says:

    Wow! Thank you!
    I always wanted to write in my site something like that. Can I take part of your post to my blog?
    Of course, I will add backlink?

    Regards, Timur I. Alhimenkov

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