by Judy Newman with Alexie Basil
We had a spirited—almost heated—debate in the office the other day about one of my forever-favorite picture books: Leo the Late Bloomer by Robert Kraus.
The story centers on Leo, a small tiger who is not “blooming” according to his dad’s timetable of when he should be achieving assorted developmental milestones (such as reading, speaking, writing, and drawing). But Leo’s mom cautions that, as Leo’s parents, they should be patient and that in his own good time, Leo will bloom.
Over the course of the 32 illustrated pages of this winsome picture book first published in 1971, Leo’s dad backs off and—in what I have always thought of as a joyous finale—Leo does indeed bloom.
I never thought that, at least in the context of Leo the Late Bloomer, this parenting strategy—i.e., letting your child bloom in his own good time—could be contentious. But several of my Scholastic colleagues (some parents themselves, some not) had a deep, negative reaction to this book. They disagreed with letting Leo make progress in his own good time and took issue with the fact that after Leo’s mom told his dad that “a watched bloomer doesn’t bloom,” Dad got out of the way by sitting in his armchair and reading a newspaper while his son prepared himself to bloom.
To me, this is a fascinating example of how different readers can have diametrically opposed reactions to one book. And while Leo the Late Bloomer is not the subject of this week’s post and is not this week’s Dollar Deal, it does remind me in some ways of the discussions that swirl around E. B. White’s Stuart Little…which is our featured Dollar Deal title this week.
“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 New York Times
Stuart Little is one of those books that I thought I had read but, in fact, I had not. I think that must come from reading by association with E. B. White’s perfect masterpiece, Charlotte’s Web, which, like many readers, I can practically recite by heart.
And just to put a pin in this, for the holidays this year, my friend and colleague David Vozar had a bookmark made for me that was inscribed with Charlotte’s immortal words:
But Stuart Little is not Charlotte’s Web and, as you will read in this week’s Behind the Scenes post, “How Stuart Little Arrived,” Stuart’s appearance in the literary world—and in his family within the story—was met with scandal and criticism. I am so curious to think about what the social media conversations on platforms like Twitter, Facebook, and BuzzFeed would be if Stuart Little were published for the first time today, in 2019. Which readers would love it? Who would excoriate it? How would modern-day book people feel about this story?
When Stuart Little was first published in 1945, the controversy centered on the fact that Stuart was part of a human family. We all know that even though mice are prominently featured in many wonderful and timeless children’s books, given what we know today about their genetic makeup, they probably cannot be born to human parents.
By the time I finally read Stuart Little (i.e., last month in preparation for this post), E. B. White had, under pressure, changed the first line of his original text from “When Mrs. Frederick C. Little’s son was born, everybody noticed that he was not much bigger than a mouse” to “When Mrs. Frederick C. Little’s second son arrived, everybody noticed he was not much bigger than a mouse.”
But it does not matter to me whether Stuart was born into the Little family or whether he arrived in some other way. In this timeless work of fiction, what stands out to me is the total acceptance and support Stuart gets from his family and the people in his world.
By the end of the first chapter, we see Stuart enveloped in the love and respect of his mother and father and his older brother, George, who come up with all sorts of creative solutions for the challenges of being a mouse-size person in a human-size world. Even the doctor was delighted to examine Stuart at his checkup, pronounce him healthy, and advise Mrs. Little to “feed him up.”
Stuart’s adventures take him to a sailboat race in Central Park, on an automobile ride, to school (where he is the substitute teacher!)—meeting a small girl named Harriet Ames, and leaving it all behind to search for his beloved friend, Margalo the bird. Along the way, no one doubts that Stuart can achieve what he wants to. And Stuart’s tenacity triumphs. In my reading of Stuart Little, his ability to persevere comes from a foundation of love and acceptance he got from his family.
In “The Lion and the Mouse” by Jill Lepore, we learn that since 1946, readers and students have been writing alternate endings to Stuart Little. As a recent first-time reader of Stuart Little, and as someone who still loves Leo the Late Bloomer, the unresolved ending of E. B. White’s novel does not bother me. I am comfortable knowing that Stuart will continue to search for Margalo; as he explains to the repairman, “I rather expect that from now on I shall be traveling north until the end of my days.”
But if I were a student again and had to come up with an alternate ending for Stuart Little, I would have him go back home to his family in New York City—where Margalo would be waiting for him. There, he would be embraced yet again by the love and unequivocal acceptance of his family and his friends—all of whom believe in Stuart.
You know from the holiday present David had made for me that he appreciates E. B. White’s words. To celebrate Stuart Little, David created the following interpretation in pictures:
The blog team had fun revisiting this quirky adventure! Join the Book Boys as they recount their own “Stuart Stories” of perseverance; encourage your students to write an alternate ending to Stuart’s adventures with the classroom activity in Cooked Up from a Book; go Behind the Scenes into the publishing challenge of Stuart Little; and discover how one second grade teacher uses Stuart Little to teach his students about grit in Book Talks.
I hope you enjoy the material we have curated to help you enjoy and share Stuart Little—and that the story reminds you and your students that it’s good to walk away with different thoughts about wonderful books.
This Book Is Available from Scholastic Book Clubs