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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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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 Nordstrom, then the director of Harper’s Department of Books for Boys and Girls. Stuart Little was published in October of that year, with illustrations by Garth Williams and an initial printing of 50,000 copies. The book begins:
When Mrs Frederick C. Little’s second son was born, everyone noticed that he was not much bigger than a mouse. The truth of the matter was, the baby looked very much like a mouse in every way. He was only about two inches high; and he had a mouse’s sharp nose, a mouse’s whiskers, and the pleasant, shy manner of a mouse. Before he was many days old he was not only looking like a mouse but acting like one too – wearing a grey hat and carrying a small cane. Mr and Mrs Little named him Stuart, and Mr Little made him a tiny bed out of four clothespins and a cigarette box.
In the way of young readers I saw no problem with any of that: it was an unusual but perfectly acceptable start to a story, and the suspension of disbelief was easily made. Stuart is a quirky character, full of an appealing practical energy. He is helpful around the house, retrieving Mrs Little’s lost ring from the drain – his human brother George lowers him down the bathroom plughole on a string – and he finds imaginative ways to survive in the outside world. Stuart has satisfyingly dangerous adventures – sailing a toy boat on the Central Park lake; being trapped on a garbage scow and towed out to sea; and having several hazardous encounters with the Littles’ cat, Snowball. The story is also, and often, very funny. Mr and Mrs Little edit the rhymes in children’s books to correct the way mice are portrayed, and Mr Little encourages his wife to tear the ‘Three Blind Mice’ page from the nursery songbook. ‘“I don’t want Stuart to get a lot of notions in his head,” said Mr Little. “I should feel badly to have my son growing up fearing that a farmer’s wife was going to cut off his tail with a carving knife.”’ They worry about the demeaning characterization of mice in the poem which begins: ‘’Twas the night before Christmas when all through the house / Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse.’ ‘“I think it might embarrass Stuart to hear mice mentioned in such a belittling manner,” said Mrs Little, and she carefully substituted the word “louse” for mouse in the book.’ There’s also a delightful chapter in which Stuart takes a class of children when their regular teacher is ill, and guides them into suggesting good laws for the world. ‘Nix on swiping anything’ is accepted, and so is ‘absolutely no being mean’. Stuart then prompts the class to act out these laws, with very satisfying results. But despite its humour and energy, the book ends with uncertainty rather than resolution. Stuart falls in love with a bird called Margalo, and when she flies away he leaves home to look for her. With the courage of a questing hero he ‘started up the road that led to the north . . . As he peered into the great land that stretched before him, the way seemed long. But the sky was bright, and he somehow felt he was headed in the right direction.’ Stuart was the first romantic hero I encountered in a book: a worthy and complex one. The critical response to the publication of Stuart Little was surprisingly mixed. Anne Carroll Moore, the fearsomely influential and powerful children’s librarian at the New York Public Library, was, quite frankly, horrified. She had learned of the possibility of a children’s book written by E. B. White; she had written to him several times to entice him into her grasp; she had waited in her majestic fashion for his book to be finished. ‘No one will be more interested than I when your children’s book is ready,’ she wrote to him. She was eager to take credit for it, but the book she finally read in galley proofs . . . well! That was quite another matter. ‘I was never so disappointed by a book in my life,’ she declared. She told Ursula Nordstrom that the book ‘mustn’t be published’. And she struck a blow to support that assertion, saying threateningly that the book ‘will be very difficult to place in libraries and schools over the country’. Miss Moore had retired by 1945 but her influence was still pervasive, and her successor at the New York Public Library refused, when prompted, to buy Stuart Little. ‘Not recommended for purchase by expert’ was the message conveyed to libraries across America – Miss Moore had left her special refusal stamp on her desk for future use. (It later emerged that her browbeaten successor had bought a copy, but she kept it under her desk until the library’s director heard of the book, read and loved it, and ordered Stuart out of his hiding-place.) Ursula Nordstrom later remembered that watching Anne Carroll Moore’s attempt to block the publication of Stuart Little was like watching a horse fall down, ‘its spindly legs crumbling beneath its great weight’. She was not, however, the only objector – Harold Ross, the founding editor of The New Yorker, stuck his head into White’s office one afternoon and said: ‘God damn it, White, at least you could have had him adopted.’ Even Edmund Wilson intervened, telling White that he should have developed the theme ‘more in the manner of Kafka’. But the author and the book’s young readers remained relatively unruffled, and the book sold 100,000 copies within fifteen months of publication. I still have my original hardback of Stuart Little, begged from my parents as a birthday present after I’d listened to the book in class. It’s the Hamish Hamilton edition, first published in 1946 and reprinted in 1955. Its dust-jacket fell apart years ago but at some stage I carefully stuck the front-cover illustration inside: Garth Williams’s picture of Stuart in his shorts and shirtsleeves paddling a tiny birch bark canoe called ‘Summer Memories’. The cover is printed in only three colours and yet the illustration’s charm shines through. One modern paperback cover now features a picture from inside the book, fully coloured for the occasion: Stuart swinging a tiny wooden hammer so that he can use the bathroom tap. It’s lively and amusing, but it lacks the plangent wistfulness of the canoe scene. (Garth Williams, according to Eugene Exman’s 1967 publishing history of Harper, made the ninth submission of possible artwork, which was the first to meet with Nordstrom and White’s approval. Jill Lepore, in an article in The New Yorker in 2008, put the count at eight. Either way, his work was well worth waiting for.) I love Charlotte’s Web, and I regularly read it to 8- and 9-year-olds when I was a teacher. (All teachers and parents who attempt this task will know to brace themselves for the inevitable tears when Charlotte dies alone. I think it’s the ‘alone’ that does it.) But Stuart Little remains my favourite children’s novel, perhaps because of its imperfections. You could say that the ending is too abrupt, or too full of doubt for a children’s book. You could say that the arc of story isn’t properly realized. You could say that Charlotte’s Web is a better children’s book. And you might be right about all that, but Stuart Little is more than a children’s book: it transcends such an artificial label. Its themes are universal ones, and its unresolved ending is a true stroke of genius. Stuart is indeed headed in the right direction at the end of the book – into the complexities, pleasures and pains of real life. I got a sense of all that when I was 9, and it’s shaped my reading pleasures ever since.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 44 © Belinda Hollyer 2014


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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