The Mouse that Roared

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When I was 9 and at primary school in New Zealand, my class teacher was a poet called Kendrick Smithyman. He was a rather bad-tempered curmudgeon but he had an overwhelming advantage over any other teacher I’d met: he read lots of good poetry to us, and the books he chose for class serialization were brilliant. I remember many of the poems he introduced us to, but most of all I still treasure the first book he read to us. It was E. B. White’s Stuart Little.

Most young readers these days have probably encountered White’s Charlotte’s Web, a later and an almost-perfect book as well as a tearjerker of major proportions, with one of the very best opening lines in modern literature – ‘“Where’s Papa going with that axe?” said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast.’ When I was 9 I’d never heard of the author or his books, but I fell in love with Stuart Little, the book and protagonist both, and I’ve never really recovered.

E. B. (Elwyn Brooks, but known as Andy) White was a highly respected staff writer for The New Yorker and columnist for Harper’s magazine. (In later years he also produced a revised version of The Elements of Style, the classic American style guide, now commonly known as Strunk & White.) He wrote exclusively and seriously for adults: no one could have expected a children’s novel from him. But it seems that privately he’d long cherished the idea of writing a children’s story about a mouse: he had nephews and nieces who begged stories from him, and he’d dreamed of a small character with the features of a mouse: ‘nicely dressed, courageous and questing’. He stocked a desk drawer with fragments about his mouse-child, named Stuart.

White sent an unfinished version of the book to his editor at Harper & Brothers in 1939, but the final version wasn’t submitted until 1945, when he delivered it to the great Ursula N

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About the contributor

Belinda Hollyer has spent most of her working life enjoying some combination of children and books. She is presently tussling with revisions to her fifth novel for young readers, and wondering if adding a mouse might help . . .

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