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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