Two heavyweights of children’s literature have been sitting peacefully and untouched on my bookshelf since I was a child. Not anymore! Having recently re-read both, I’m pitting them against each other in a head-to-head smackdown of beloved classics. Both are about the same size and shape and both weigh about the same, so it would seem they are pretty evenly matched. Pooh does best Stuart by 30 pages, and while that may be the deciding factor for those with time to kill, others may be more interested in exactly what the ink on those pages does for them. Here’s what it does for me.
Pooh hit the shelf in 1926 (the proverbial one, not my shelf). Stuart Little, by comparison, stumbled out of the starting gate in 1945, thereby giving Pooh a nearly 20 year head-start in cementing its status in the children’s canon. This is significant when pitting two classics against each other as the real question is “which one is more classic”? With Pooh being arguably more popular than Stuart even today, the winner in this category is clear. Pooh 1, SL 0
Pooh was written by A.A. Milne. Stuart Little by E.B. White. Good names, these. Writers’ names. Initials in both. Same number of letters. Very hard to call. It comes down to this: E.B. White is simple, easy to say, and not likely to need repeating. The phrase “hello, my name is A.A. Milne” is likely to prompt replies of “A.A What?” followed by inquiries regarding how to spell it. Troublesome! Pooh 1, Stuart 1
Here they are. Easy to discern which is which:
Here is Edward Bear, coming downstairs now, bump, bump, bump, on the back of his head, behind Christopher Robin. It is, as far as he knows, the only way of coming downstairs, but sometimes he feels that there really is another way, if only he could stop bumping for a moment and think of it. And then he feels that perhaps there isn’t. Anyhow, here he is at the bottom, and ready to be introduced to you. Winnie-the-Pooh.
When Mrs. Frederick C.Little’s second son arrived, everybody noticed that he was not much bigger than a mouse. The truth of the matter was, the baby looked very much like a mouse in every way. He was only about two inches high; and he had a mouse’s sharp nose, a mouse’s tail, a mouse’s whiskers, and the shy pleasant manner of a mouse. 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.”
Ooh, those are both good! They set up the main character immediately. They make you want to read on. They are charming. Very hard to pick a winner here, but pick we must – there cannot be a draw. I think it must go to Pooh. When you read that paragraph, the words come stepping lively and easily to the front of your mouth in concise little phrases that are rhythmic and perfectly balanced. Reading it almost turns you into an Englishman yourself if you’re not one already. Pooh 2, Stuart 1
Let’s look at each book’s Chapter 9. Random, yes, but fairly representative of each. Pooh: Chapter IX, In Which Piglet is Entirely Surrounded by Water. Stuart Little: Chapter IX, A Narrow Escape.
Close again. Roman numerals in each. One is wordy; one gets to the point. Both connote peril. This one goes to Pooh for its elegant use of the phrase In Which (which is italicized in the book, not by me). They don’t write ’em like that anymore! Pooh 3, Stuart 1
Let’s look at a scene from Pooh. Our hero is floating by balloon to get to a beehive in a tree. He’s covered himself in mud so the bees will think he’s a black rain cloud, but a lack of wind has him stuck too far out from the tree to accomplish his mission.
“I think the bees suspect something.”
“What sort of thing?”
“Perhaps they think you’re after their honey?
“It may be that. You never can tell with bees.”
There was another little silence, and then he called down again.
“Have you an umbrella in your house?”
“I think so.”
“I wish you would bring it out here, and walk up and down with it, and look up at me every now and then, and say ‘Tut tut, it looks like rain.’ I think, if you did that, it would help the deception which we are practising on these bees.”
And now from Stuart. Our hero has made his way to Central Park in New York City. He’s found the sail boat pond and talked the owner of a model boat into agreeing to give him a job on the boat (?) if he can win a race against the boat of the owner’s nemesis. Stuart has just leapt aboard and placed himself at the wheel.
“I intend to crack on more sail,” said Stuart.
“Not in my boat, thank you,” replied the man quickly. “I don’t want you capsizing in a squall.”
“Well then,” said Stuart, “I’ll catch the sloop broad on, and rake her with fire from my forward gun.”
“Foul means!” said the man. “I want this to be a boat race, not a naval engagement.”
“Well then,” said Stuart cheerfully, “I’ll sail the Wasp straight and true, and let the Lillian B.Womrath go yawing all over the pond.”
“Bravo!” cried the man, “and good luck go with you!” And so saying, he let go of the Wasp’s prow. A puff of air bellied out of the schooner’s headsails and she paid off and filled away on the port tack, heeling gracefully over to the breeze while Stuart twirled her wheel and braced himself against a deck clear.
“By the by,” yelled the man, “you haven’t told me your name.”
“Name is Stuart Little,” called Stuart at the top of his lungs. “I’m the second son of Frederick C. Little, of this city.”
Marvelous! Both of these excerpts are just the kind of dialogue I love. Quick, clever, and crackling. Pooh has loads of it. Stuart has less, though there are many fantastic lines, like when Stuart calmly whispers to himself as he shoots the Little’s house cat with his bow and arrow, “This is the finest thing I have ever done.” Stuart relies more heavily on narrative, which is fine, and the dialogue is often one person speaking at length as opposed to the quick exchanges I’m partial to, so I’m giving this one to Pooh. WtP 4, SL 2
I would give it to Pooh for its bright colors as opposed to Stuart’s black and white sketches, but look at that Christopher Robin! That’s supposed to be a boy? No. WtP 4, SL 3
Stuart doesn’t have much of one – it’s a series of loosely linked episodes. That said, Pooh doesn’t have much of one either. Its episodes are even more loosely linked. Plot is important to me, so Stuart wins due to a greater semblance thereof, and its payoff at the end. WtP 4, SL 4
Although the episodes are loosely linked in Stuart, they come together in an ending that is courageous and optimistic, but also unresolved and ambiguous. This has the potential to frustrate, but that might be some of what makes the book a Classic. There is a touch of profundity as you realize you’ve watched this little mouse grow up into quite a man, if you will. It’s like saying goodbye to a mini-hero after having learned something about him that illuminates something about you. And just as he’s off on another adventure, you realize you can’t come along. And isn’t that how all the best books end? Leaving you wanting more, and just a little bit sad that it’s over? Stuart’s unexpectedly weighty finish trumps Pooh’s back-where-we-began framework. WtP 4, SL 5
So there it is – Stuart Little wins by a nose. At the outset, I had this smackdown pegged as a rout by Pooh, but as is so often the case, I never really know what I think about something until I try to write about it. The more I think about it, the more things seem to fall Stuart’s way. What do you think, Reader? Where have I scored it wrong? Have I scored anything right? How many chances did I miss to make poo jokes?