The Printable KISS Grammar Workbooks Back to April Menu
Notes for the Selections from
Stuart Little, by E. B. White
Selection #1 (The First Paragraph) AK SC  G4 L1.5 PP
Selection #2 ("In the Garage) AK SC  G4 L1.5 PP
Selection #3 (The Loveliest Town of All) AK SC G4; IG5 L3.1.2
L2.3 Interjections (Punctuation #1) AK - G3 L2.3
L2.3 Interjections (Punctuation #2) AK - G4 L2.3

      The fame and popularity of E. B. White obviously justify including short passages from Stuart Little in the KISS Workbooks. These are taken from the 1973 Harper & Row edition. Although I am a fan of E. B. White, and especially his essay, "Once More to the Lake," I had not read Stuart Little before looking at it to find passages for these workbooks. Might I suggest that, if it is approached well, it can be an appropriate text for middle and high school students?
    What I mean by "approached well" is that middle and high school students will probably view it, with some scorn, as "kiddie lit." If, however, they are asked to approach it and explain it as "kiddie lit," they may find it very interesting. What is it that makes children like this work? How does White navigate the line between the realistic and the fantastic? [Simply pointing to some of the non-realistic elements of the work may be fun. For example, first we are told that Stuart is too small to carry money, but later we find him paying people with money that they accept.] Is the work meant to be purely entertaining, or does it have a message (theme)? What is it saying to young children? What does Margalo (the bird whom Stuart leaves home to find) symbolize? Why does the book end as it does (if one can call it an "ending")? If these questions are combined with some discussion of White's syntactic style, middle and high school students may find this easy to read work very enjoyable -- and they may also learn some interesting things about literary analysis.

Selection # 1 -- The Opening Paragraph

     One thing to focus on is this passage is the use of compounding, especially the main clause "he had a mouse's sharp nose, a mouse's tail, a mouse's whiskers, and the pleasant, shy manner of a mouse." Third and fourth graders are much more likely to write this as "he had a mouse's sharp nose, and he had a  mouse's tail, and he had a mouse's whiskers, and he had the pleasant, shy manner of a mouse." Thus this passage may be a good model for showing younger writers either how to combine their sentences or to add a series of specific details. 
     Note also that all three of these selections may make excellent punctuation exercises. Simply remove the punctuation from the text and replace capital letters with small. Have the students add the punctuation and capital letters where they think it is appropriate. Then have them compare their versions with White's.

Selection # 2 -- ["In the Garbage"] (pp. 58-59)

     In addition to the compounding, this passage is interesting because we find E. B. White, one of the best known and best loved writers in English, violating several of the rules that students are taught. Students are taught to put a comma after an adverbial clause at the beginning of a sentence, but in the first sentence, there is no comma after "now." Later in the passage there are two sentence fragments. And, in the second fragment, we find a series of nouns. Students would be taught to write these as "world of garbage, trash, and smell," but White wrote "world of garbage and trash and smell." In the final sentence in the passage, many editors would be seriously tempted to put commas around "near the top," but White omits them, and he also omits a comma before the "and" that joins the last two main clauses. The point here is that many rules of punctuation are conventions -- they are not "right" or "wrong,"  Instead, punctuation is either effective or not effective in helping readers to process the text.

Selection # 3 -- ["The Loveliest Town of All"] (p. 100)

     If I did not think that formal study of sentence structure helps students, I would not spend the countless hours that I do working on this web site. The fact remains, however, that the best ways for students to master sentence structure and grammar are by being read to, and then reading on their own. Selection # 3 is the opening paragraph of Chapter XIII, "Ames' Crossing." It is a single 107-word main clause that begins with two prepositional phrases, "In the loveliest town of all." These phrases are followed by ten parallel subordinate "where" clauses that modify "town," and many of these subordinate clauses include compound finite verbs and/or complements. The last of these clauses is then followed by a variation of the initial two phrases -- "in this loveliest of all towns." This variation reminds the reader of the initial phrases, thereby framing the subordinate clauses, tying them together to modify the main S/V pattern, "Stuart stopped to get a drink of water."
     At 107 words, it is more than five times the average length of the main clauses of professional writers. And its ten subordinate clauses per single main clause is more than thirteen times the average of professionals. (Click here for the statistics.) We should definitely not be pushing students to write sentences as long and complex as this. Doing so would be comparable to asking a student who can lift a 100 pound weight to lift a 500 pound weight. The strain will do more harm than good.
     But students, even primary school students, can decode the syntactic structure of sentences like this one. And clearly, the ability to decode precedes the ability to encode. (If we cannot understand something, we certainly cannot make it.) Rarely, if ever, does anyone speak in sentences that are as long and complex as this, but students who are read to, or who read, will run across many sentences as long and complex as this one, and each sentence will increase, ever so slightly, the students' ability to juggle more words in short-term memory. Each sentence will leave a slight trace of its syntactic pattern, and thus, as students run across long sentences with numerous parallel subordinate clauses, such as this one, that pattern becomes clearer and clearer in the students' minds.
     This means, among other things, that if you have primary school children do the sentence-combining exercise for the selection, you should definitely not expect (or push) them to put everything into one main clause. There are numerous ways in which the short sentences can be combined, and students should be praised for the combinations that they make. Honest positive reinforcement, even for very slow growth, is a fertilizer; false praise, pushing for too much, and focussing on errors are all weed killers.

This border is a colorized adaptation of an illustration by Garth Williams
for E. B. White's Stuart Little, NY: Harper & Row, 1973.