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A Boy, a Mouse, and a Spider

In the words of E. B. White, “Children are demanding. They are the most attentive, curious, eager, observant, sensitive, quick, and generally congenial readers on earth.” I think White would be pleased with Barbara Herkert’s and Lauren Castillo’s collaboration, A Boy, a Mouse, and a Spider: The Story of E. B. White. Through lyrical prose and watercolor illustrations, the book rises to children’s demands, providing them with an honest and clear portrait of the beloved author and his relationship with animals.

Herkert’s lyrical language (“His ears captured an owl’s query, the breeze’s beckoning, the scuffing of horse hooves”) presents children with phrases and words that demand that they be attentive both to story context and the illustrations. What is a sailor suit? What is a comrade? What is a dapper chap? What does “in the refuge of the stable” mean? For children, studying the illustrations will help them figure out the meaning of these unfamiliar words and phrases. Castillo’s rendering of Stuart Little is the epitome of a “dapper chap.” The double-page spread of young Elwyn White surrounded by animals not only explains the concept of “stable” but also shows how, for Elwyn, the stable was a place of refuge. Castillo’s radiant watercolor illustrations reflect and extend the poetic prose as well as the gentle themes of Elwyn’s story and his longing for the pastoral. I always encourage my students to notice how the words and illustrations work together to tell the story. Here they are seamless. The text adds depth to the illustrations, and the illustrations extend and explain the text. Readers who approach A Boy, a Mouse, and a Spider with an attentiveness to both words and illustrations will be richly rewarded.

When I first encounter a square book, I am always curious. Why did the illustrator choose a square format to tell the story? In her book Reading Picture Books with Children, Megan Dowd Lambert explains, “A square trim size book can be used to support the thematic elements of a given picture book.” Lambert goes on to explain how the four even sides of a square book can impart coziness or a sense of security. This book’s design (a matte cover and pages) and brown ink and watercolor illustrations expertly convey themes of security and peace and “capture the glory of nature and the comfort of hope.” The cover illustration of young Elwyn surrounded by farm animals is a pictorial definition of contentment. Inside the book, the use of body language and expression in the small vignettes of White interacting with rabbits, mice, and other farm animals captures White’s inclination and affinity for the natural world. Notice the tilt of his head as he gazes at the chicks, the way he gently cradles the rabbit, and his admiration for the spider as he stands on the ladder gazing at her majestic web. The double-page spreads of the outdoors are especially effective in giving readers a sense of bucolic peace — a summer night with twinkling stars and a golden crescent moon, the rich greens of rural Maine, and a glowing countryside sunset, as viewed from the inside of a barn. I invited my group of first-graders to tell me what they were thinking at the end of the book. One little girl whispered that it made her feel like “taking a quiet walk in a sunny meadow,” and another little girl commented that E. B. White was a “kind farmer.”

The attention to illustration accuracy will satisfy those eager readers who want to know if White “really” wore a hat and sailor suit as a little boy. And did he “really” have a farm in Maine, a boathouse, a rope swing, and “stoic sheep, anxious hens, and gossiping geese”? The answer to all of these is of course, yes. Look at photographs of White as a little boy, of his farm in Maine, of his boathouse, and you will see how reverently Castillo honored detail and accuracy.

Children are indeed observant, and A Boy, a Mouse, and a Spider provides abundant details for them to notice. Those familiar with Charlotte’s Web will of course notice young Elwyn looking up at a spider in her web in the stable, as well as the rope swing that is reminiscent of the one in Garth Williams’s original illustrations. They will notice that Andy (White’s university nickname) types his stories on a typewriter. I was pleased when it was my students who first noticed that the red book next to Andy when he is typing Stuart Little is identical to the journal he used for writing stories when he was a boy.

The Caldecott committee, understanding the demands of children, approaches the task of choosing the “most distinguished American picture book for children” with great reverence. Will they decide that the honesty and clarity of A Boy, a Mouse, and a Spider is worthy of the award?

 

 

Emmie Stuart About Emmie Stuart

Emmie Stuart is a school librarian at the Percy Priest Elementary School in Nashville, Tennessee.

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  1. “Castillo’s radiant watercolor illustrations reflect and extend the poetic prose as well as the gentle themes of Elwyn’s story and his longing for the pastoral. I always encourage my students to notice how the words and illustrations work together to tell the story. Here they are seamless.”

    And here we have a surprise! This is the first book in this year’s Calling Caldecott that I have yet to lay eyes on, and for whatever reason neither have I been alerted to its pre-eminence in these circles, though like everyone else who loves children’s books Lauren Castillo’s signature bold-lined art is a joy. Of course Melissa Sweet’s SOME WRITER!, a comprehensive biography on the beloved writer was rightly acclaimed, and I well recall it came in second place in the Horn Book’s balloting last year behind only Brenden Wenzel’s “They All Saw A Cat.” Now we have another book, which according to Emmie in her superlative qualification essay takes another approach in looking at America’s most cherished children’s book, our iconic answer to Britain’s “The Wind in the Willows” by Kenneth Grahame. In any case, I marveled at all your acute observations about the art and how it was seamlessly orchestrated with the text, and have resolved to travel today to whatever town in my system is holding a copy. Like “Good Bye Planet” this review is a late, uxexpected addition to this year’s Calling Caldecott, which all things considered is a celebratory development.

  2. “When I first encounter a square book, I am always curious. Why did the illustrator choose a square format to tell the story? In her book Reading Picture Books with Children, Megan Dowd Lambert explains, “A square trim size book can be used to support the thematic elements of a given picture book.” Lambert goes on to explain how the four even sides of a square book can impart coziness or a sense of security. This book’s design (a matte cover and pages) and brown ink and watercolor illustrations expertly convey themes of security and peace and “capture the glory of nature and the comfort of hope.”

    Fantastic obsetrvations in this awesome passage. I picked up my copy of the book at the Paramus, N.J. library yesterday (along with the just released and also sublime “The Boy and the Whale” by Morecai Gerstein and another fantastic book which I only now finally got to – “Jabari Jumps” by Gaia Cornwall) and now see why “A Boy, a Mouse and a Spider” has been added on. Truly a stunning work, and now the second consecutive outstanding book on the beloved author. Your discussion of the employment of a square trim is a superlative launch of a discussion here. I’m still gathering my thoughts.

  3. Emmie Stuart says:

    Thanks for your thoughts, Sam! I’m glad you were able to pick up a copy of “A Boy, A Mouse, and A Spider”. I hope your students enjoy reading it as well! I love your comparison of “Charlotte’s Web” to ” The Wind in the Willows”. Your students are fortunate to have such a passionate and knowledgeable teacher!

  4. Emmie, those are lovely, much appreciated words from a very lovely person and masterful writer and librarian. Thank you! I read “A Boy, a Mouse and a Spider” to my first grade (and one second grade) classes today and they were charmed and mesmerized. Their favorite illustration is the canvas with the enlarged web with White and his wife and dog on the picnic blanket. I love many and am unable to pick one over the others. Even the marvelous brown spine is exquisite. As seems to be normal with Ms. Castillo’s books, you love it more and more each time you engage with it. I think what distinguishes this particular exploration of the E.B. White magic is how it implicitly traced youthful events and a love for animals that impacted, indeed defined his writing and those masterpieces he gifted the world. Your brilliant and passionate essay lead to a deeper appreciation, and I now feel both Barbara Heckert’s lyrical prose and Lauren Castillo’s ravishing, vivid art qualify this jewel as one of the year’s very best picture books. That Charlotte’s Web is my favorite children’s novel of all-time and that Stuart Little is well in my top ten makes it that much more sweeter. I adore Melissa Sweet’s “Some Writer!” for all sorts of reasons, but “A Boy, a Mouse and a Spider” with a unique approach is equally as great!

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