Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Midweek Mullings #1—Stuff and Stuart (Little, that is)

On Wednesdays here at Getting Into Character, I'm going to start posting discussions about characters in children's literature.  I'm inviting writer and illustrator friends to stop by and talk about one of their favorites.  I hope you'll chime in on their posts!

I'm starting it off today by discussing one of the characters who first comes to mind when I think of the books I read as a boy.  But it's not necessarily one of my favorites.

When I was growing up, it was usually the main character who drew me into a story. But on occasion, what I really liked was the character's stuff, more than I liked the character.

Stuart Little was one of those books for me.  Everyone knows it's acknowledged as one of the children's literature greats, yet I've always been ambivalent about the story—as a kid, I thought it was really weird that normal parents might have a mouse as a baby, especially when their first child had been human.

I think the book has some large problems.  What would that have been like in the hospital—I mean, was he all pink and stuff when he was born?  Did they have to wait a few days for his eyes to open?  And gosh—what on earth did Mr. and Mrs. Little say to each other? That's a potentially awkward discussion I'm not sure I'd want to hear.  To me, the best part of the book was Garth Williams's illustrations, but even Williams couldn't blunt the profound and disturbing oddness that lurked under it all.

Stuart Little:  man mouse about town.
We first encounter Stuart in the illustrations as a sort of "“little man," all dapper in the blue worsted suit his mother has made, with a hat and a walking stick. . . when he's about a week old.  So, okay, he's a mouse, and he'll age faster than a human.  But he never seems to have had a real boyhood.

I was troubled with the idea of scale in the story.  Stuart's worsted suit has pockets in which he can "keep his handkerchief, his money, and his keys."  What did those tiny keys open? And what kind of money could fit in a mouse's pockets?  I was being very literal, but I've always been a stickler for logical consistency within the fabric of what I read.  One "yo, dude" in a historical novel, and the magic of the story is ruined for me.  And E.B. White is writing about what otherwise is a completely ordinary human world.  So my question about the cash rattling around in Stuart's pocket was "Wait—who's going to accept tiny money?"  In case anyone thinks this means I had no imagination as a boy, I can only offer up that I was perfectly willing to accept cartoon dogs playing tennis on top of a tree in Go, Dog.  Go!

The Wasp encounters a paper bag.
Now, on to Stuart's stuff.  What drew me to Stuart Little the most was what Stuart has, or is allowed to use. He has access to some wonderful things.  First, there's The Wasp, the sailboat he captains in the Central Park pond.  How great would it be to have a toy boat so anatomically correct that it could actually be steered with that miniature wheel?  He chats up the ship's owner, and is given its helm before they know each other's names.  A paper bag causes a collision which nearly does him—and the ship—in.  But it turns out the ship is owned by a certain Dr. Carey, about whom I'll write more in a minute.

The next great things Stuart gets are his ice skates, fashioned from paper clips.  They were just  plain cool.  But Stuart drops them into the ocean.  To the boy me, that hurt.  I know that he had to, because Margalo the "wall-eyed vireo" (or wren, or whatever) who was carrying him back to New York, was getting tired.  But still.

The skates go into the drink.

Stuart shows his prowess at portaging.
And then there was that great birchbark canoe, the Summer Memories.  I'd made toy boats before, and most of mine weren't very seaworthy.  So to have one which came from a store, and was stout and laced with sinew, and with which Stuart could show he was as good in a canoe as "a Canadian guide"— well, something about that resonated with me.  I wanted one of those.

Now, at the birch bark canoe part of the story, Stuart is set up on a blind date with a certain Harriet Ames.  I was confused and disturbed by the fact that another family had had a human-looking daughter the size of a mouse.  To the middle-school me, the idea of them dating was kind of icky.  When Stuart goes on the date with Harriet and he discovers that his canoe has been wrecked by what is assumed to be boys, I felt his pain.  But my pain was for the ruined canoe, not for the ruined date.

The most awesome car.
The best thing that Stuart gets to play with in the book is the thing which ultimately carries him off the stage, into what I felt was one of the least satisfying endings in any book I'd ever read:  the model car.  This is car which the aforementioned Dr. Carey, who is a dentist (I get it now, caries!) gives to Stuart.  It isn't just a miniature car. What makes this sporty little roadster so great is how detailed it is, the way The Wasp is detailed.  My own childhood toy cars had hard plastic seats and steering wheels which turned, but didn't turn anything else.  But this one has a gas engine.  A gas engine! It's a real car, perfectly mouse-sized.  And the dentist has built the car himself.  Stuart, after destroying the car and being given a rebuilt version, gets to drive himself around wherever he wants to go.  What child doesn't want that kind of independence?  But the car is also the device which takes Stuart into the book's sunset.

As an adult, I understand the hopeful upturn at the end of the book.  Stuart is off in search of his true love (OK, she's a bird, and that cross-species thing left me a little bewildered as a boy, too). He has a feeling that he's headed in the right direction.  That must make us feel uplifted, positive, right?  Not me as a boy.  I worried about whether he'd ever find Margalo, if he was headed toward unknown dangers, like the betraying, evil cat, Snowball. . . and even if he could find gas for his car.  I needed something more definitive.

To wrap up this Midweek Mulling, I'll point out that Garth Williams, for the most part, chose to show Stuart as a tiny figure in a normal-sized adult world, which is one way to depict Stuart's diminutive scale.  But wouldn't we feel closer to Stuart if we saw the world through his eyes, rather than the eyes of the "normal-sized" world?  This perspective diminishes him.  We don't see him close up, with a jaunty foot on the running board of his car, for instance, and the rest of the scene in gigantic proportion.  We don't see the world through Stuart's eyes.  Perhaps that's part of what created a sense of distance between Stuart and me as a boy, kept me from really identifying with him as a character.

Look closely—that's the book's protagonist near the bottom of the page!
There's no denying that Stuart Little is one of the giants among children's literature.  But I'll be curious to hear:  did anyone else experience the same misgivings that I did when you were little?


  1. Yup. Never cared for the book for all those reasons, as well as the fact that the plot seemed very random. Of course Alice in Wonderland was pretty much the same in that department, and by today's standards there are many "classics" that come up short. I reread Stuart Little a few years ago and had no patience for it. I wanted to edit it very badly but then realized it was beyond editing. Could it be published today? I doubt it.

  2. Oh dear! I had a whole comparison between Stuart and Ralph and Mousekin and Hunca Munca going--where did it go?
    Basically, I think what it came down to was that the way Beatrix Potter's mice and Stuart Little interact with the human world is somewhat alienating. It feels forced, more so with Stuart than with Potter's mice. When Beverly Cleary's Ralph and Edna Miller's Mousekin interact with the human world, they have more uniquely mousy perspectives. And I think of Mousekin as being very much in the foreground, like when he is in his golden house and you can see the frustrated owl outside through one of the windows.
    You obviously aren't the only one who was bothered about Stuart's parentage, since he was adopted in the movie.
    And I think it's easier to believe that Ralph powers his vehicles by making "vroom" noises than that Stuart has perfectly operating vehicles at his scale. When you know the vehicle is powered by "vroom," you don't have to wonder about all the tiny pistons and spark plugs.
    I probably said it more smoothly and with more detail the first time--sorry. I don't know why it didn't post.

  3. I always felt that part of Stuart's issue was that he wasn't REALLY a mouse--he was born of human parents and just LOOKED like a mouse. So he wasn't very mousy. He could have been a cockatoo or a beagle, and the basic story wouldn't have changed all that much. You've listed true mice, and I think you've nailed how their mousiness works for them. And I laughed at your "vroom" comment--though it's completely illogical, I too bought the "vroom" as means of locomotion more than I accepted Stuart's car.

  4. Wonderful post, Brian. I never would have thought of this aspect and definitely the favorite line of your musings - "And gosh—what on earth did Mr. and Mrs. Little say to each other? That's a potentially awkward discussion I'm not sure I'd want to hear." Hysterical!

  5. I enjoyed your musing about POV in Garth WIlliams's illustrations for SL--had me thinking of books that did offer that Lilliputian perspective (the Krushes art for THE BORROWERS, Richard Egielski's for THE TUB PEOPLE, and Brian Selznick's for DOLLFACE HAS A PARTY--and I just realized that the latter two were both written by Pam Conrad). Haven't reread SL in ages, but it seems where you're going with this is that in both the art AND the text, the book has the perspective of an adult human--Stuart's toys are actually adult acoutrements (except for the improvised skates--NB {WHICH HE IS FORCED TO ABANDON}--and his interests, as well as the perspective in which they are drawn, make more sense to a grown-up than a small child.

  6. Brian,
    I agree too. I always viewed Stuart Little as the great warm up to Charlotte's Web and its ability to stay in print so long is also due the the later. I also had issues with the Trumpet of the Swan but think that is much better than Stuart. If only Trumpet had had Garth Williams art in it too.