Back when I was a student at Olde Providence Elementary School, I discovered the work of E.B. White. I cannot even remember how many times I checked out either Charlotte’s Web or Stuart Little. The former book made me want a pet pig and, the latter, made me wish for a mouse for a brother (and envious of Stuart with his beautiful red roadster). Yet, despite my love for both of these books, I never got around to checking out or reading The Trumpet of the Swan.
Even when we had our first child, I read him both Charlotte’s Web and Stuart Little, but, despite owning a copy of The Trumpet of the Swan, never read it to him, either. I cannot explain this. Why would I not when I loved the other two books so dearly? It wasn’t until recently, with our younger son, that this book even got taken down from the shelf. He adores birds and is becoming an avid birdwatcher (so much so we are joining our local Audubon Society). After he read The Trumpet of the Swan, he recommended it to me with, “Papa, you’ve got to read this book. It is soooo good. You’re going to love it, too.” I promised him that I would and he reminded me of that promise recently; so I agreed to read this children’s literary classic. And I’m so glad that I finally did!
As I began to read, I could certainly identify with the boy, Sam Beaver, who was described as “…odd in one respect: he liked to keep things to himself. And he liked being alone, particularly when he was in the woods.” It also described White himself, who was a quiet man. He loved writing in an old boathouse at the water’s edge where he could be in peace in solitude.
What I appreciated about this character was that, “Every night, before he turned in, he would write in the book. He wrote about things he had done, things he had seen, and thoughts he had had. Sometimes he drew a picture. He always ended by asking himself a question so he would have something to think about while falling asleep.” I love this idea of keeping a journal of what one saw during one’s day, drawing a quick sketch, but, even more so, ending the entry with questions. Unanswered questions to ponder in one’s sleep. What a wonderful way to approach the world.
“The world is full of talkers, but it is rare to find anyone who listens. And I assure you that you can pick up more information when you are listening than when you are talking,” wrote E.B. White in one of my favorite passages from The Trumpet of the Swan. It’s wise advice that so few people choose to do. In my own life, our of pure curiosity, I love to ask questions and just listen to people unfold the stories of their lives. In a world with so many words, many of them angry and pointed, we have neglected the pleasures that come with not always having to be heard but to offer only empathy and understanding.
What I loved about The Trumpet of the Swan, along with Charlotte’s Web and Stuart Little, is the simplicity of the writing mixed with the complexity of using words children might not be familiar with. E.B. White said in an interview once, “Anyone who writes down to children is simply wasting his time. You have to write up, not down. Children are demanding. They are the most attentive, curious, eager, observant, sensitive, quick, and generally congenial readers on earth. They accept, almost without question, anything you present them with, as long as it is presented honestly, fearlessly, and clearly.”
White’s style reveals his spirit: how he was fascinated by natural science and a keen observer and used the rich in detail from the world around him in his books. His work is infused with a sense of wonder that he retained all of his life and brought to his writing. Those who knew him said that he had “an unsurpassed capacity for wonder.”
In his letters, he wrote, “I would feel more optimistic about a bright future for man if he spent less time proving that he can outwit Nature and more time tasting her sweetness and respecting her seniority.” This love of nature was something that White had ever since he was a young boy. As he said of himself, he “felt for animals a kinship he never felt for people.” This was shown to the various animals he tended, though his favorite were birds (pigeons, chickens, a turkey, ducks, and geese).
Along with his love for animals, White lived for the simple life. In one of his essays, he wrote, “I find this morning that what I most vividly and longingly recall is the sight of my grandson and his little sunburnt sister returning to their kitchen door from an excursion, with trophies of the meadow clutched in their hands—she with a couple of violets, and smiling, he serious and holding dandelions, strangling them in a responsible grip. Children hold spring so tightly in their brown fists—just as grownups, who are less sure of it, hold it in their hearts.”
The Trumpet of the Swan is not as fanciful as Stuart Little or filled with the imaginative creatures that inhabit Charlotte’s Web, but it reveals a quieter and serene sense of White’s approach to the world. This sweet, tender tale also has some of my favorite lines by E.B. White when he writes, “As Louis relaxed and prepared for sleep, all his thoughts were of how lucky he was to inhabit such a beautiful earth, how lucky he had been to solve his problems with music, and how pleasant it was to look forward to another night of sleep and another day tomorrow, and the fresh morning, and the light that returns with the day.”