Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Reader's Diary #485- E.B. White: Stuart Little

If I read another book this bad this year, I may give up reading altogether. It's so bad it almost managed to taint one of my fondest childhood books, Charlotte's Web. I've since concluded that E.B. White commissioned someone else to write the latter.

Even my daughter hated it. I was starting to think she didn't have it in her. Despite my suffering through some other chapter books night after night, she's claimed to have loved every single one. But, at the end of Stuart Little, she actually got angry. "What?! But what about the bird? What about Harriet?"

She calmed down when she remembered this thing called a "sequel." "Oh," she said with a sigh of relief, "he probably wrote another one after. Right?"

"Um, I don't think so, dear."

I was thoroughly shocked. It begins with a bizarre mouse child named Stuart, born to a human couple, the Littles. It's not explained, but at that point I figured it would either be explained somehow later, or that I was just supposed to strike a deal with White to suspend my belief (and questions) on that one. Shortly after he's acting like an adult at age seven, sailing boats and driving cars. I guess weird mouse boys age faster? It's not some cutesy deal like in Beverly Cleary's (far superior) The Mouse and The Motorcycle either. Stuart worries about the oil. You know, the stuff kids relate to.

And there's his bird friend that takes off one day never to return. And the tiny human that Stuart has a crush on but then treats her like a jerk until she leaves and is not mentioned again. Where did she even come from in the first place? (At this point I developed a theory. If there are humans the size of mice, maybe there are also mice the size of humans, and maybe Mrs. Little's surprise over giving birth to a rodent boy was a facade for Mr. Little, if you catch my drift. I didn't share this theory with my daughter.)

There's also the infamous abrupt ending. No questions answered (in case I have whined about that enough) and Stuart just heading north by himself, possibly as a child, possibly as an adult, I'm not sure. Wikipedia and a few blogs I found explain that White had hypochondria and was so convinced he was going to die soon that he rushed off the amount he'd written (presumably with a $100 bill attached) to be published as quick as possible, never returning to fix it up or write a sequel despite living for another 40 years. I'm not sure of the source of their info, so I don't know if it's true. It makes sense though and in any case, it makes for a better story than the book itself.

I found Stuart Little choppy, pointless, and emotionally unrewarding. My daughter simply calls it "horrible."


Chrisbookarama said...

Oh no. I never read this one but loved Charlotte's Web. I always thought the movie looked weird. Maybe he had a really bad day.

When my daughter was a little younger, she loved the show "George Shrinks". I had the same questions about him: where did he come from exactly?

Stacy said...

It is kind of weird that Charlotte's Web was my favorite book as a child but I never had a desire to read Stuart Little. I guess it is a good thing...based on your review, I have a feeling I would have been devastated by disappoinment. Can't we pretend somebody else wrote Little Stuart instead? For me, Charlotte's Web and White will always be inextricably linked.

Nikki in Niagara said...

Well, I feel your being just a tad harsh, John but to each his own! I actually like Stuart Little more than Charlotte's Web, but then The Trumpet of the Swan is the best of the lot, as far as I'm concerned!

John Mutford said...

Chris: While I haven't seen it, I'm told the book and movie have very little in common.

Book Psmith: Yes, I like your way better. Someone else wrote Stuart Little. I wonder who wrote Elements of Style? I'll have to read it soon.

Nicola: Well, I do have a flair for the melodramatic I guess. I'm glad you enjoyed it. I don't understand how, but I'm glad you did.

JoAnn said...

That's funny - Charlotte's Web was one of my (and my kids)childhood favorites, but none of us read Stuart Little. I took the kids to see the movie years ago, and still they didn't seem interested in the book. My oldest daughter did like The Trumpet of the Swan though.

I like BookPsmith's idea...let's just pretend he never wrote it!

Barbara Bruederlin said...

Ouch. I did see this movie, and I guess the premise was quite odd, but at the time I was being forced to watch lots of this type of stuff, so became accustomed to the illogical.

John Mutford said...

JoAnn: Still haven't read The Trumpet of the Swan, but I'm less keen on doing so now.

Barbara: Again, from what I hear the book and movie are miles apart. I'm assuming this is in the movie's favour.

Allison said...

I haven't read this, but have seen snippets of the film. I guess this is why there was a sequel to the film?

I do love Charlotte's Web though.

Jason said...

Too bad about that book, John.

I found Charlotte's Web very difficult to read outloud to a class. So, I not too fond of it. No worries, I'm still giving it another try...or more accurately, I'm giving myself another try.

John Mutford said...

Allison: I've Ziplisted the movie. I'll have to compare after. I'd guess though that a sequel movie had more to do making money than wrapping up loose ends.

Jason: I enjoyed reading it loud to a a class of grade 3s actually. What grade did you try? Also, did you see the stage production the Sir John students put off here last fall? They did a wonderful job.

Anonymous said...

I agree--the story just didn't do it for me. And the part where the school children, when asked what's important, reply "a shaft of sunlight" and "the back of a baby's neck"--this Tonstant Weader Fwowed Up.

Even sadder because I refer to my Strunk and White tonstantly.

Larry said...

I just finished reading the book to my little boy and looked for discussions of the abrupt ending, so here I am. He did say, at the end, "I want to read more about Stuart Little," but I told him there wasn't a sequel. He's young enough to just accept that. I think the story is really meant for very small children and other people who are able to read, accept, and evaluate on its own merits. Little kids are great in their ability to do that.

As for Wikipedia's explanation of the abrupt and unsatisfying ending, the current version of the article doesn't give any source, so I would give that factoid a 25% chance of being true.

The book is a fantasy. It doesn't matter how Mrs. Little might give birth to a mouse. (Would she even notice that she was giving birth to a newborn mouse?) The premises are (1) Stuart Little is a full (birth) member of the family, (2) he is a mouse, (3) but he is as smart as or smarter than a boy, (4) ordinary people are not surprised by a talking mouse (or by 2-inch-high girls, either), and (5) he can grow up (or at least grow reasonably competent) fast, so he can leave home and drive north at age 7 or whatever it is.

Sure that's a bizarre set of premises to ask somebody to accept, but if you think about it in a certain way, it makes sense. Imagine someone thinking, "What would it be like to grow up two inches high? Well, you'd be as small as a what would it be like to be a human but growing up as a mouse? A mouse, by the way, that has all the spunk and independence of a very bright, competent, independent-minded boy." Well, all the premises behind the book follow from that suggestion.

There does seem to be a problem in how the book ends so abruptly, without answering some crucial plot questions. It is quite possible that White intended to finish it, but considering that he lived for another 40 years, he must have felt satisfied with leaving it as it was, and so that was his artistic intention -- to leave it "unfinished." There's just one reasonable interpretation of that, which is very clear from the last few pages of the book: the message of the book is that, if you have courage and spunk, you'll get along fine in this long, strange, still unfinished journey called life.

I like neat, satisfying, life-fulfilling endings more than most people I guess, and so for a little while I was disturbed by the end, but I've decided that Stuart gets along just fine and probably even finds what he's looking for.

As to the movie, it's a big steaming pile. It bears almost no relation whatsoever to the book. Mr. and Mrs. Little adopt Stuart in the movie, and he's kidnapped in the movie (there's nothing about that in the book). There's also a lot more between the brother and Stuart in the movie, but very little in the book. The book actually has romance, the movie has none. In the book, the cat is almost unreconstructedly bad and is mainly just a plot device, while in the movie the cat is a major character and is redeemed in the end. The book and movie have virtually no plot points in common, except for the boat race, and the movie version is all wrong anyway. The movie has a satisfying Hollywood ending, the book is open-ended (but positive) and more thought-provoking. The movie is a Hollywoodization of a basically "literary" story.