Books

Stuart Little: Living Life One Adventure at a Time

E.B.White known for writing of stories for children, essays and book for adults did not plan it that way. He wrote because he liked to, unmindful of the audience.

Stuart Little is considered one of E.B.White’s best. The others being Charlotte’s Web and The Trumpet of the Swan. Do not go looking for the Stuart Little of the movies. E.B.White’s Stuart is a strong, independent young mammal, a mouse of action and grit. White’s philosophy in writing for children runs true in the book as well. Little is sugar coated or tied up neatly with little bows. There are unfinished endings, friends that part forever, leaving home and very real adventures.

The intrepid mouse sails boats, drives automobiles, rows canoes and never loses his cool or mind even in the face of certain death. The detailed line drawings by Garth Williams are a treat.

E.B.White when speaking of writing for children felt it was a lot like writing for adults. On being asked by the interviewers George Plimpton and Frank H. Crowther if there was a shifting when writing for children, he replied in the negative.There was he felt no changing of gears while writing for children, but rather it was just as challenging and interesting to write for them.

The small mouse on one very big adventure

The small mouse on one very big adventure

“Anybody who shifts gears when he writes for children is likely to wind up stripping his gears. But I don’t want to evade your question. There is a difference between writing for children and for adults. I am lucky, though, as I seldom seem to have my audience in mind when I am at work. It is as though they didn’t exist.

Anyone who writes down to children is simply wasting his time. You have to write up, not down. Children are demanding. They are the most attentive, curious, eager, observant, sensitive, quick, and generally congenial readers on earth. They accept, almost without question, anything you present them with, as long as it is presented honestly, fearlessly, and clearly. I handed them, against the advice of experts, a mouse-boy, and they accepted it without a quiver. In Charlottes Web, I gave them a literate spider, and they took that.

Some writers for children deliberately avoid using words they think a child doesn’t know. This emasculates the prose and, I suspect, bores the reader. Children are game for anything. I throw them hard words, and they backhand them over the net. They love words that give them a hard time, provided they are in a context that absorbs their attention. I’m lucky again: my own vocabulary is small, compared to most writers, and I tend to use the short words. So it’s no problem for me to write for children. We have a lot in common.”

Stuart Little is written with this very same philosophy in mind.

His small size never deters him from contributing to the household, be it getting his mother’s ring stuck in  the drainpipe or adjusting the keys from within the piano. The Littles –Mr., Mrs and George except Snowbell the Little’s cat accept Stuart as their own. George is shown as someone who loses interest in things fairly quickly. If it is rowing today, it’s something else the next. The author does not shy from showing George or Stuart as characters with oddities and flaws.

White shines best in the chapter ‘The Sailboat Race’. His knowledge of sailing and his interest in model boats and their navigation are etched so well even for complete sailing illiterates like me.

“ Just at this moment Stuart heard a splintering crash, saw the bow of the Lillian plow through his rigging, and felt the whole ship tremble from stern to stern with the force of collision.”

Stuart sails the Wasp in Central Park

Stuart sails the Wasp in Central Park

The chapter in which Stuart and Margalo meet is sheer magic. The chapter in which Stuart travels from a garbage can to the sea we see New York’s underbelly.

White’s description of animals and places bring the neighbourhood to life. Speaking of Snowbell and his friends the author says:

Snowbell had several friends in the neighbourhood.Some of them were house cats, others were store cats. He knew a Maltese cat in the A&P, a white Persian in the apartment next door, a tortoise-shell in the delicatessen, a tiger cat in the basement of the branch library, and a beautiful Angora who had escaped from a cage in the pet shop on Third Avenue and had gone to live a free life of her own in the tool house of the small park near Stuart’s home.

The last sentence makes you wonder whether it’s still a cat that he is talking about, not unlike T.S.Eliot.

The mouse deeply moved by Margalo’s departure goes out in search of her, with no teary goodbyes. Along the way Stuart meets more characters and behaves quite poorly with a young lady his size, unhappy his well laid plans come to naught.

Stuart is who he is, not a comic book hero with all his curls in place . He is a regular mouse who goes about doing the things he needs to do, never letting his size or form stop him from living a full life.

Animals with personality, people with personality and a story that meanders to nowhere in particular makes Stuart Little an eminent read.

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