Reading by Ear: Stuart Little

Stuart Little by E. B. White
read by Julie Harris



Honestly, I do try to vary my audiobooks, but, since I try to only revisit books I read before I was eighteen, I’m starting to scrape the bottom of the barrel after five years of book blogging. It is a truth I do not like to acknowledge that I was not actually much of a reader as a kiddo, although I staunchly identified myself as such. Given the political nonfiction that overwhelmed Fort McBride’s libraries, the bulk of my childhood reading actually came from school.

Luckily, the nineties offered the school teachers of America easy ways to fill at least two class periods with watching films based on classic children’s books—Matilda and Stuart Little among them. Assign the book and watch the movie: the lesson plan writes itself. (Non-literature classes, alas, had to forgo the book, but the point still stands.) This is how I assume Stuart Little came into my tiny, furious hands as a child. My memories about the book itself do not feature the acquisition of the book, just fevered deliberation over whether or not it was ethical to take a borrowed book into the bathroom. (If I had a journal from childhood that I was going to edit for public consumption, my only footnote would be “???”.)

And, of course, the vague unease that this wasn’t like the 1999 film, featuring the soothing voice of Michael J. Fox. (Which was incidentally co-written by M. Night Shamayalan! There, go win your local trivia night in my name.) In fact, that film may have been my first introduction to Fox—I distinctly remember watching Back to the Future for the first time in middle school—despite his sainted status in my childhood home. (Back to the Future was the only American film series my brother was into in the eighties while growing up in France.) I was far from the champion of pragmatic book to film adaptations that I am now. At that time, I wasn’t far removed from the season I spent alternately eating french fries and chicken nuggets from Wendy’s Kids’ Meals, to the despair of my mother. I craved stability and repetition, and the disconnect between book and film unsettled me on some subconscious and not terribly accessible level.

But Stuart Little, the book, is actually quite repetitive. It’s not a complete story—Stuart does not complete what he sets out to do. Rather, each little episode focuses on the incongruity of Stuart’s size and Stuart’s efforts to make an impact on the world around him. He calmly negotiates all the power differentials around him, save his eternal struggle against Snowbell, the family cat. He sails a (toy) ship, substitutes for a class, drives out of New York, and goes on a date with an equally tiny young lady.

Stuart isn’t really a child, and I’m not saying that just because he’s a mouse. Rather, he’s a marvelous stand-in for a child, rather like Bilbo Baggins in The Hobbit. Like children, Stuart is small, underestimated, and easily overpowered by others and by simple misadventure; unlike children, Stuart has the agency to travel New York City on his own, pick up and leave his family whenever he wishes, have clear-cut love interests, and do, essentially, whatever he wishes. His brief day as a substitute illustrates this best, as he both manages to impress the children by being the “cool” teacher (they skip math!) and impress upon them his own authority despite his size.

Of course, this is also shaded by the fact that Stuart Little was published in 1945 and tells mostly of a New York in the late twenties and thirties, which was probably closer to the fairy tale version of New York we see in, say, Big and Home Alone 2. (This would probably be a good thing to point out that John Mulaney’s stand-up special, New In Town, is streaming on Netflix, complete with that Home Alone 2 joke.) That idyllic, peaceful vibe, which is troubled only by Snowbell having a pal determined to eat the friendly bird Margalo, undoubtedly contributes to its longevity as a children’s story. After all, there’s not really any urgency to the thin plot; Margalo, Stuart’s friend, has simply traveled north, like all birds, so we know she’s fine. And, hopefully, so does Stuart on some level, given the fact that he’s happy to wander off to do whatever he wants as he pursues her cold trail.

Finally, a children’s audiobook without music! Julie Harris does a stupendous job, balancing voices (nuanced characterization for the humans, broader for the animals) and injecting some sense of timing into everything. Given how short it is, this might be a wonderful first audiobook for the little ones in your life.

Bottom line: Stuart Little’s longevity might be due to its time capsule nature, but Stuart as aspirational child figure (he’s a kid who can do whatever he wants!) is undoubtedly the main reason. If you’d like.

I rented this audiobook from the public library.

4 thoughts on “Reading by Ear: Stuart Little

  1. Stuart Little is such the red-headed stepchild of EB White’s children’s books. I own it, but I never ever reread it. I always grab The Trumpet of the Swan or Charlotte’s Web instead, because they are so indisputably better. (Poor old Stuart Little.) But it IS repetitive, and I just get bored of it.

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