Indulging in some E.B. White…

Going to a couple of thrift shops, I had found a boxed set of E.B. White’s trilogy including Charlotte’s Web* (1952), Stuart Little (1945) and The Trumpet of the Swan (1970). I’d already read Charlotte’s story, but the other two were new to me… It was a hot day, I was tired from all the de-stoning of the flower beds (see previous entry), so I sat down to engage in some sweet reading.

Both were adorable reads (just as Charlotte’s Web was), and if you haven’t read them, I recommend them for an adorable hour or so of beautiful writing and lovely stories. (Plus – some more of artist Garth Williams’ perfect pics.)

Stuart Little is a smart little mouse who was born (in mouse form) to human parents, but who lives his life as a human would (just a very small human). Anyways, it’s so sweet (although not saccharine) to follow Stuart’s adventures and I loved this little jaunt with this rodent.

Then, I moved on to a read of The Trumpet of the Swan which follows the adventures of a young trumpeter swan who has no voice (and thus, can’t trumpet). Undeterred, he enrolls in school, and then falls in love with another swan. However, with no voice, how can he tell her of his deep love for her? Just adorbs.

(I’m very puzzled about how I missed these when I was a young reader who adored animals… Maybe it was an American book? Or I was too deeply attached to Little Tim and the Brave Sea Captain?)

(I was obsessed with this book when I was little…)

(Interestingly, Garth Williams (the artist who had illustrated Charlotte’s Web only illustrated Stuart Little. Another artist ended up illustrating The Trumpet…, so I missed Williams’ style. Still lovely stories though.)

After reading some more of White’s work, I was curious about his life so toddled off to the library to see if I could track down a biography about him. I found one by Michael Sims: The Story of Charlotte’s Web: E.B. White’s Eccentric Life in Nature and the Birth of an American Classic (2011). Cool. I was psyched to learn more about the lovely Mr. White…

However, it was not to be. The author had completely butchered this biography, and to be honest, I’m not sure how this version made it through an editor. Not to be mean, but from a professional editor’s viewpoint, it was so sophomoric and read like a student’s early draft of a basic research essay. (Sorry. But it’s true.)

The author had included every single little fact that he had dug up about White, and then had just mushed it all together in a vague order, but goodness gracious. It was painful to read, and I didn’t want to sully White’s image in my head with this writing, so stopped after a hundred pages of so. Grr.

There are, however, other biographies of White out there to read, so I’ll try one of those. This title is off the list though. 🙂

Then to recover from that disappointment, I did a jigsaw puzzle… 🙂

  • If you google Charlotte’s Web, curiously enough, the first item that pops up on the search list is of the weed type that’s called that same name. Aaah. A sign of the times. 🙂

Matilda – Roald Dahl (1988)

For some reason in my head, I had this novel written back in the 1950’s (perhaps confusing Dahl with another author called Ronald Searle*) so I was quite surprised to see that this was published in 1988 and thus referenced up-to-date cultural references. I also thought it was American, and this was swiftly corrected by the never-ending English/British cultural references throughout the story. (I loved the refs but wonder if the rest of the world miss them? It’s a good story if you get the refs or not, but they certainly add a depth to the story.)

This is by the same author as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and James and Giant Peach et al. so it has similar themes (i.e. naughty people getting their comeuppance). What I absolutely *adored* about Matilda is that she loves to read and to learn. Her parents are not supportive of her academic endeavors, but she ends up with a capable teacher who encourages her and she succeeds in the end (although not without trial).

Her father, Mr. Wormwood, can be described by the following quotation:

“We don’t hold with book reading…You can’t make a living from sitting on your [bottom] and reading story books. We don’t keep them in the house.”

(Lots of refs to ongoing societal debate of relative values of liberal arts and science which seems to be cropping up rather frequently in my reading regardless of whether it’s 19th or 20th or 21st century… Hmm. Did they have this debate in the 18th century? I am not very familiar with lit from that time.)

Matilda attends a local village primary school with a tyrant of a headmistress who represents all the stereotypes of a mean PE (or Games) teacher. (Not like the lovely PJ who was my Games teacher and I loved, loved, loved.) The headmistress really doesn’t like children and would like to have a school without any kids if possible, but in the meantime, she spends her time as far away from the pupils as possible. However, seeing as she actually works daily in the school, there is a lot of uncomfortable interaction between them.

To balance this out is the lovely adorable Miss Honey (who has a back story which is perfect for the plot). Like her name (and in a rather Victorian fashion of having a name related to her characteristics), she is very sweet and nice to her students especially to Matilda who struggles to learn despite her awful materialistic TV-addicted parents. (The text and illustrations by Quentin Blake are pretty funny in places and I would think that quite a few of us will be reminded of people who we have met with similar characteristics. Variety makes the world go round and all that.)

As (justifiable) revenge on being treated meanly by people, Matilda and her friends engage on a series of practical jokes suitable for the elementary crowd:  putting a newt (sort of lizard) into one of the headmistress’s drinks, sprinkling itching powder in the headmistress’s clothes etc., setting up a fake ghost… All good fun and no one gets harmed in the making. Matilda also learns that she has power beyond the books which was a surprising twist for me. However, this power only comes when she is threatened and so it’s entirely a defensive mechanism which I thought was a good way to show a young kid gracefully handling such responsibility and ability. “With great power comes great responsibility,” as Voltaire is reputed to have said (and Spiderman’s Uncle Ben).

A great message throughout this book for young students (and old): that it’s ok to be clever even if it does make you the odd one out. Embrace your nerdiness, my friends. (Not that I had this problem when I was a kid or anything. Far from it. Sigh. I’ve been learning since I evolved into an adult. Late starter.)

This was also a very VERY English book – loads of cultural references, lots of English-specific jokes and word play etc., which definitely adds to the read. However, I don’t think that missing those would make it a lesser experience – just different. It’s obvious that this is a well-read title as the copy I received through the library was really used and well-thumbed (which I loved to see). There’s a movie out (1993), but I haven’t seen it. Does it still follow pretty closely to the book’s plot and humor? Or, seeing as it’s an American film, does it American-ize things? (Fine either way if well done. Just curious.)

* Searle is a childhood memory both from the never-ending films of St. Trinian’s (which I thought were pricelessly funny at the time) and the Molesworth book series (Down with Skool!), but also for his cartoons in Punch and other outlets.