Published on July 13, 2016
Stuart Little is a 1945 children’s novel by E. B. White, his first book for children, and is widely recognized as a classic in children’s literature. Stuart Little was illustrated by the subsequently award-winning artist Garth Williams, also his first work for children. It is a realistic fantasy about Stuart Little who, though born to human parents in New York City, ″looked very much like a mouse in every way″
In a letter White wrote in response to inquiries from readers, he described how he came to conceive of Stuart Little: “many years ago I went to bed one night in a railway sleeping car, and during the night I dreamed about a tiny boy who acted rather like a mouse. That’s how the story of Stuart Little got started”. He had the dream in the spring of 1926, while sleeping on a train on his way back to New York from a visit to the Shenandoah Valley. Biographer Michael Sims wrote that Stuart “arrived in [White’s] mind in a direct shipment from the subconscious.” White typed up a few stories about Stuart, which he told to his 18 nieces and nephews when they asked him to tell them a story. In 1935, White’s wife Katharine showed these stories to Clarence Day, then a regular contributor to The New Yorker. Day liked the stories and encouraged White not to neglect them, but neither Oxford University Press nor Viking Press was interested in the stories and White did not immediately develop them further.
In the fall of 1938, as his wife wrote her annual collection of children’s book reviews for The New Yorker, White wrote a few paragraphs in his “One Man’s Meat” column in Harper’s Magazine about writing children’s books. Anne Carroll Moore, the head children’s librarian at the New York Public Library, read this column and responded by encouraging him to write a children’s book that would “make the library lions roar”. White’s editor at Harper, who had heard about the Stuart stories from Katherine, asked to see them, and by March 1939 was intent on publishing them. Around that time, White wrote to James Thurber that he was “about half done” with the book; however, he made little progress with it until the winter of 1944-1945.
First we learn of Stuart’s birth to a family in New York City and how the family adapts, socially and structurally, to having such a small son. He has an adventure in which he also gets caught in a window-blind while exercising; Snowbell, the family cat, then places Stuart’s hat and cane outside a mouse hole, panicking the family. He was accidentally released by his brother George. Then two chapters describe Stuart’s participation in a model sailboat race in Central Park. A bird named Margalo is adopted by the Little family, and Stuart protects her from Snowbell, their malevolent cat. The bird repays her kindness by saving Stuart when he is trapped in a garbage can and shipped out for disposal at sea.
Margalo flees when she is warned that one of Snowbell’s friends intends to eat her, and Stuart strikes out to find her. A friendly dentist, who is also the owner of the boat Stuart had raced in Central Park, gives him use of a gasoline-powered model car, and Stuart departs to see the country. He works for a while as a substitute teacher and comes to the town of Ames Crossing, where he meets a girl named Harriet Ames who is no taller than he is. They go on one date, but it doesn’t work because the boat was found broken. As the book ends, he has not yet found Margalo, but feels confident he will do so.