A Short History of E. B. White’s Stuart Little
by Alexie Basil
The small character “had the features of a mouse, was nicely dressed, courageous, and questing.” Andy was so intrigued by the “tiny boy who acted like a rat” that upon waking, he immediately began to craft short stories about him for his 18 nieces and nephews.
And so Stuart Little was born.
Although Andy was already a well-known essayist for the New Yorker and a columnist at Harper’s Magazine, he had never written a children’s book before. After reading his short stories about Stuart, the fiction editor of the New Yorker (who was also his wife), Katharine White, encouraged Andy to transform Stuart into a children’s novel.
Over time, writer Clarence Day and Andy’s editor at Harper’s joined the chorus, spurring Andy to try something longer for younger readers. He had already published several collections of his essays and columns for adult audiences. Eventually, even Anne Carroll Moore, the most prominent book reviewer in the children’s literature community, got on board. She encouraged Andy to write a children’s book that would “make the library lions roar.” Finally, the call to write was too loud to resist.
Thanks to their gentle prodding, those of us not fortunate enough to be one of Andy’s lucky 18 nieces and nephews were finally introduced to Stuart, when Stuart Little was published, nearly 20 years after Andy’s original dream.…
Later, Andy would describe Stuart as the “only fictional character ever to have honored and disturbed my sleep.” But just before the book’s publication, Stuart most certainly disturbed the waking hours of Anne Carroll Moore—one of the few people who, ironically, had encouraged Andy to write children’s books in the first place.
Despite her initial optimism about Andy’s foray into children’s literature, Moore was absolutely appalled by the Littles’ rodent-like son. According to her own notes, Moore was afraid children would be irreconcilably confused by the mixing of truth and fantasy. Andy remembered about her feedback, “She said something about it having been written by a sick mind.”
“I was never so disappointed in a book in my life,” she said. Moore immediately launched a campaign to block the book and even wrote a 14-page letter to Andy and Katharine, telling them exactly what she believed was wrong with his distasteful story. Historian Jill Lepore details the contentious war Anne Carroll Moore waged against Stuart Little’s publication in the now-iconic New Yorker article, “The Lion and the Mouse.”
But Moore wasn’t the only one bewildered by Andy’s choice.
In a tribute to his late stepfather in the New Yorkersimply titled “Andy,” Roger Angell recounted, “Harold Ross [founder of the New Yorker], who read everything, stuck his head into Andy’s office one afternoon and said, ‘[…] at least you could have had him adopted.’”
Despite the criticism, Andy eventually was victorious. The book was purchased by Harper & Brothers and published in 1945.
Choosing an illustrator for Stuart Little proved difficult. After nixing seven other illustrators who drew the character “too much like Mickey [Mouse]” or “too slick,” Ursula Nordstrom (the children’s editor at Harper) and Andy settled on Garth Williams.
Stuart Little sold hundreds of thousands of copies within the first 15 months after publication and was met with rave reviews. Charles Poore, famed book critic for the New York Times, simply said, “Everybody should read ‘Stuart Little.’” Another New York Times critic, Malcolm Cowley, said, “Mr. White has a tendency to write amusing scenes instead of telling a story. To say that Stuart Little is one of the best children’s books published this year is very modest praise for a writer of his talent.” The story about the mouse-boy born to Mrs. Frederick C. Little even helped Andy win the Laura Ingalls Wilder Medal in 1970. (Fun fact: In the introduction of Stuart Little’s later editions, Andy changed “was born” to “arrived.”)
In an interview for the Paris Review in 1969, Andy said, “A writer should concern himself with whatever absorbs his fancy, stirs his heart, and unlimbers his typewriter.…I do feel a responsibility to society because of going into print: a writer has the duty to be good, not lousy; true, not false; lively, not dull; accurate, not full of error. He should tend to lift people up, not lower them down. Writers do not merely reflect and interpret life, they inform and shape life.”
And 80 years later, teachers, readers, and librarians all over the world would certainly agree that Stuart Little reaches this standard. Who would've guessed that one little mouse could have such a big impact?
If you love Stuart Little, be sure to check out another timeless classic by E. B. White, Charlotte’s Web. For ideas on how to incorporate it into your lesson plan, browse these exclusive blog posts:
E. B. White was born in Mount Vernon, New York, and graduated from Cornell University. His writings appeared for many years in the New Yorker magazine. He was awarded the 1970 Laura Ingalls Wilder Medal for his children’s books Stuart Little and Charlotte’s Web, and his third book for children, The Trumpet of the Swan, also won several awards. The author of 17 books of prose and poetry, Mr. White received many distinguished literary honors. In 1973, he was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters. © Donald E. Johnson
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