Saturday, April 12, 2008

E. B. White

Charlotte's Web
by E. B. White
Recommended Age: 8+

It would be a shame if I really had to say a lot to introduce this book. This 1952 Newbery Honor Book is a treasured classic of American children's literature. And whether you live in a simple farming community (as I did, when this book was first read to me) or in a great metropolis, re-reading it can be like going home.

Wilbur is the runt of a litter of pigs. Little Fern Arable saves him from being put down, bottle-feeds him, and (a month later) sells him to her uncle, Homer Zuckerman. Uncle Homer installs Wilbur in the barn cellar with the sheep, the geese, a rat named Templeton, and a spider named Charlotte. While Fern comes every day to sit on a milking stool and listen to the animals talk to each other, Wilbur and Charlotte form a close friendship. This friendship is cemented when Charlotte promises to save Wilbur from being killed and eaten. How does she do it? It's all in the way she spins her web.

The people and many of the animals in this story become unforgettable characters. And at first it appears that it may be no more than a story about barnyard life from the animal's point of view, until messages start appearing, spelled out in block letters in Charlotte's web. From that point on it is a magical tale of friendship, small deeds of heroism, the beauty of changing seasons, and love that transcends death. You will laugh at the greedy rat, you will fall in love with the "radiant, humble" pig, and you will weep for the last creature you would ever have imagined that you would find beautiful: a gray spider.

Have you somehow managed not to read this book, or have it read to you? Or has it been more than a few years since you revisited it? Go home again to the masterpiece of E. B. White, unless you wish to prove what Charlotte tells Wilbur: "People are not as smart as bugs." Or are you too grown up for a book like this? Maybe Dr. Dorian's words apply: "Children pay better attention than grownups." What millions of children know, you adults out there can learn again. This is a great book.

EDIT: Wasn't the most recent movie based on this book lovely?

Stuart Little
by E. B. White
Recommended Age: 8+

This slim chapter-book is probably E. B. White's most recognizable title, alongside Charlotte's Web, thanks in part to the two successful live-action films based on it. But I wonder how many of you would really recognize it if you read the book. I read it thinking I had read it before, and found out not only that it didn't stir any memories (other than what the movies put in my head), but in fact, it surpassed my expectations.

To put it in a nutshell, if you think you know the story because you saw the recent motion pictures, think again. Read the book and you'll see it's quite different.

Of course it does begin where the movies take us, in the New York home of Mr. and Mrs. Frederick C. Little, their son George, and their cat Snowbell. Their second son, Stuart, turns out (for reasons never explained) to look exactly like a mouse, two inches tall. And the first part of the book is about the amazing ways a mouse-sized person copes with life in a human-sized house. Also, there is an exciting adventure on a miniature schooner sailing on a pond in Central Park.

Then Stuart befriends a bird named Margalo, and they save each other's lives. When Margalo is frightened off by a death threat from a stray cat, Stuart gets wanderlust and goes out searching for her. Along the way he acquires a miniature motorcar (which, by the way, can become invisible), and later a canoe, with which he tries to woo a two-inch-tall girl from a small town. Things don't always turn out very well for Stuart, and in the end, the story leaves him still searching for Margalo.

Coming to the end of this book is like waking from a fanciful, lovely, and slightly sad dream. Not at all like what the films would lead you to expect. It is not a flawlessly structured story. In fact, it is really a series of connected episodes that fade out in an indefinite, but hopeful, sort of way. But it has a modest twinkle of good-natured silliness, a soft-spoken streak of poetry, and a way of speaking to every little person finding his way in a big, big world-- things that simply cannot be captured with digital effects and a blockbuster script.

And remember: "It is almost impossible to catch a speedy invisible model automobile even when one is a skillful dentist."

The Trumpet of the Swan
by E. B. White
Recommended Age: 10+

What happens when a trumpeter swan is born without a voice? This is what happens to poor Louis, born in a Canadian swamp, from which mating grounds he soon migrates to a Montana bird sanctuary. He can't express himself to others. He especially can't court the female swan he loves. What is Louis to do?

The first thing Louis tries, is to befriend an outdoorsy sort of boy, who takes him to school with him. Louis learns to write, and returns to the bird sanctuary with a slate and a piece of chalk tied around his neck. No good. The other swans can't read.

The next big idea comes from Louis's father, who risks his neck stealing a trumpet from a music store in Billings. This does the trick, but it leaves Louis with a burden of guilt; he must repay what his father has stolen!

So Louis makes his way to one great American city after another, where he makes a living entertaining people with his musical talents, as a "trumpeter swan" in a wholly novel sense of the phrase. And one day the very swan he wanted to woo, is literally blown into his way by a freak windstorm; and Louis has to use all of his remarkable abilities to win her for his own.

The book has all the wit and wonder of Charlotte's Web - a story of the very improbable, if not impossible, and how such a fanciful thing would go over in an otherwise realistic world--a story full of charming animal characters, and the sort of human characters (particularly the boy who befriends Louis) that make you proud to be human. Between Charlotte's Web and Stuart Little, this masterpiece by E. B. White has been too long overlooked. I think you'll love it.

EDIT: Writers also remember Elwyn Brooks White as the one who put the "White" in "Strunk & White" - that is, White's 1959 revision of William Strunk's Elements of Style, which is still a standard text. Besides these books, White also published books of essays, letters, poetry, and short stories, including a collaboration with James Thurber titled Is Sex Necessary? or Why You Feel the Way You Do.

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