Volume 74, Number 19 | September 02 - 09 , 2004

Stuart Little was a big help in learning to read

E.B. White’s mercurial mouse makes bedtime stories fun for parents, too, the author finds.

By Jane Flanagan

Thank God for E.B. White.

The man’s dead nearly 20 years now, but I will go on being grateful that he lived.

White, who was born in 1899, was a writer for the New Yorker and co-author of “The Elements of Style,” a working bible for writers. I’ve long been inspired and delighted by his work.

Once I became a parent, however, my gratitude mushroomed.

I first began reading to my son, Rusty, 6, when he was a toddler. Aside from a couple of classic gems, such as “Goodnight Moon” and “The Little Engine That Could,” it was slow going. Most books were boring and uninspiring. I assumed this had to do with the limitations of toddler books and expected things to improve.

They didn’t. Pondering why, I observed that children’s books today fall into specialized categories. They are instructional: taking a bath, going to bed — every page advancing the lesson. Or one note: jumping on the bed, the line-up book (lining objects end over end from the bedroom to the kitchen). Or, brand stories: a limitless category of books marketing a product — i.e. Disney movies.

Store shelves are packed with an endless supply of brightly colored, beautifully illustrated books. But the stories?

The bedtime reading hour left me feeling depressed. It was a potentially high moment of my parenting day, but I was bored. Then one evening I picked up White’s book, “Stuart Little.”

I turned to the chapter, “The Automobile.” Rusty flashed a look of delight. He wasn’t even sure what an automobile was, but knew he was interested. I knew what an automobile was all right and was sure I wasn’t. Turns out I was wrong.

This automobile was a miniature model car built by a dentist friend of Stuart Little. Stuart, a 2-inch-tall mouse, stopped in to see Dr. Carey to discuss a personal problem. Although the dentist was in the middle of pulling out a patient’s tooth, he invited Stuart in. The mouse took a seat on the instrument tray, and began discussing his problem as the dentist yanked.

Rusty laughed and laughed.

Stuart explained that he was in a jam. His beloved Margalo, a bird, had disappeared and he simply had to find her. Appreciating the challenge, Carey loaned Stuart the car.

It was after he hit the open highway — the Saw Mill River Parkway — that I started laughing. Motoring northward through Westchester, Stuart passed a man “seated in thought” alongside the road.

“You’re worried about something, aren’t you?” asked Stuart. Turns out the guy was in an “impossible situation.” He was the superintendent of schools in that town.

“That’s not an impossible situation,” said Stuart. “It’s bad, but it’s not impossible.”

He offered to solve the superintendent’s immediate problem by filling in for an absent teacher. The super was grateful but questioned whether, at 2-inches tall, Stuart, could maintain discipline. Not to worry.

“I’ll make the work interesting and the discipline will take care of itself,” he said.

And there you have it. From farce to topical to inspiring in less than four pages.

And nary a lecture in sight. Just when you think White is about to launch into one, he zags. For instance, in that classroom. After skillfully commandeering the students’ attention, Stuart set to teaching. This is how he handled spelling:

“A misspelled word is an abomination in the sight of everyone,” said Stuart. “I consider it a very fine thing to spell words correctly and I strongly urge every one of you to buy a Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary and consult it whenever you are in the slightest doubt. So much for spelling. What’s next?”

And writing:

“Goodness,” said Stuart “don’t you children know how to write yet?”

“Certainly we do,” they answered.

“So much for that then.”

The next evening at dinner, Rusty, not one normally inclined to discuss books, discussed this one. Recalling the classroom scene, he concluded with, “So much for that then.” He laughed and laughed.

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