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The Debunker: Is Stuart Little a Mouse?

by Ken Jennings

E. B. White's gentle novel Stuart Little is a childhood classic, but your clearest memories of it may come from the 1999 film adaptation.  In that movie, the Little family adopts Stuart, a cute little guy whose parents died in a grocery store can-pyramid accident, from a New York orphanage.  Unlike most of the other residents of the orphanage, Stuart is a talking mouse.  What a twist!  (The screenplay, believe it or not, is by M. Night Shyamalan.) "I'm not just a mouse," Stuart tells his new parents' pet cat Snowbell.  "I'm also a member of this family."

But the premise of the 1945 novel is a little different.  In the book, Mr. Frederick C. Little and his wife conceive and give birth to a human baby—who just happens to look like a fully-grown two-inch-tall mouse, complete with tail and whiskers.  No one seems too concerned by this development; the doctor is "delighted with Stuart and said that it was very unusual for an American family to have a mouse."  To be fair, it's not clear that E. B. White actually knows what a mouse really is.  "Before he was many days old he was not only looking like a mouse but acting like one, too—wearing a gray hat and carrying a small cane."  That's…acting like a mouse to you?

Stuart's smallness and sweet nature are the engine for the rest of the plot, but after his family's initial surprise wears off, no one ever talks much about his mouse-like appearance.  Sure, his parents take care not to sing "Three Blind Mice" around him, but Mrs. Little never wonders why a mouse-sized fetus would produce a normal baby bulge, and Mr. Little never asks his wife if she had a torrid affair with a rodent tradesman.  But White is always very clear: Stuart is not a mouse.  His mom calls him "my poor little boy" when he's sick, and later on his travels he refers to himself as "a society man" and "a young person of modest proportions."  He "does look a good deal like a mouse," as his father can't help noticing, but he's not a mouse.  He's a two-inch person who just happens to have fur, a tail, and mouse ears.  You want to make something of it?

Quick Quiz: Besides his children's books, E. B. White is best-known for revising what professor's 1918 classic The Elements of Style?