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  • Writer's pictureCarolyn E. Cook

Great Books Countdown – Number Eleven

Third grade was a good year. My teacher was Mrs. Butte, a forty-ish woman with dyed red hair. She was mild-mannered, never raised her voice about anything, and best of all, each day after lunch, she read chapter books to the class. No more picture books with only short paragraphs on each page. We were big kids now.

Over the course of that school year, Mrs. Butte read Brighty of the Grand Canyon, Misty of Chincoteague, and Mr. Popper’s Penguins, among a few others. I liked them all, but my absolute favorite was Stuart Little by E. B. White. The small mouse/boy was a real charmer. (That recent movie version was all wrong.)

Elwyn Brooks White was born in 1899 and educated at Cornell University. His early writing jobs were as a reporter for various newspapers. Eventually, he found a place with The New Yorker magazine, where he stayed for the rest of his career as a writer of adult non-fiction. Although E. B. is known for his children’s books, he wrote only three. Everyone is familiar Charlotte’s Web, which was his second, while The Trumpet of the Swan was his last. But Stuart Little was the first and although I like the story about the spider Charlotte and her pig friend Wilbur, I’m still partial to Stuart. (Confession: I’ve never read the book about the swan.)

E. B. claimed that, in 1926, he was sleeping on an overnight train and dreamed about a small boy who acted like a rat. When awake, the idea grabbed him and later, he typed a few short stories about this rat/boy named Stuart and read them to his nieces and nephews. Apparently, the stories were a hit. E. B. made some attempts to get his tales into print, but publishers weren’t interested.

For some years, the stories were shelved, until an editor heard about them and asked to read. She was enthused and arrangements were made to publish when Stuart’s story was completed as a children’s novel. E. B. didn’t exactly work hard on this project. The book wasn’t published until 1945. With wonderful illustrations by Garth Williams, it was, and is, a small gem.

When Mrs. Frederick C. Little’s second son arrived, everybody 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. . .

Very soon, Stuart shows himself to be quite a gentleman. Mrs. Little puts away the baby clothes and sews him a suit with pockets for his money and keys. Mr. Little makes a bed for him of four clothespins and a cigarette box. All of the family likes Stuart a lot, except for Snowbell the cat, for obvious reasons.

Stuart’s size does cause occasional trouble, such as, how to turn on the bathroom faucet. Mr. Little comes up with a tiny hammer. Stuart can swing it over his head and smash it against the faucet, which gains a light stream of water, letting him wash his face and brush his teeth!

Once, when Mrs. Little is cooking, Stuart gets shut in the refrigerator. How dark and cold it is! He calls “Help,” but his voice isn’t loud enough to be heard. Then he falls into a very chilled saucer of prunes. Thank goodness, his mother needs another ingredient and opens the door. He’s saved! To warm up, Stuart asks for a “nip of brandy.” Instead, his mother gives him hot broth and puts him to bed.

Stuart meets Margalo, an injured bird that his family takes in. They nurse her back to health and she and Stuart become fast friends. When Snowbell plans to attack the bird, Margalo flies off, her only means to save herself. Stuart is heartbroken and must find his friend. He runs away from home. The local dentist supplies him with a miniature car and tells him, to search for the bird, he should go north.

Stuart sets off on a road trip full of adventures and encounters with interesting people. (As a kid, I always liked reading of his stop at a general store and buying a bottle of a strange soda pop called sarsaparilla.)

And Stuart says to a telephone repairman he meets, “Well, if you ever run across a bird named Margalo, I’d appreciate it if you would drop me a line. Here’s my card.”

. . . As he peered ahead 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.

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