Children’s Book Review: Beloved classics by E.B. White

Reviewed by Becky Benoit

It’s only days now until school officially lets out for the year, and hordes of eager children take to the parks and playgrounds to enjoy the lazy days of summer. Lamentably, while your child’s ability to turn on the TV or video game console with his toes might improve over the summer months, along with his innate sense of timing as he rolls out of bed just in time for lunch, you might be surprised to know that most kids experience a brain drain during summer holidays known as “summer learning loss.” For those kids who never crack a book or pick up a pencil during the entire duration of summer vacation, they stand to lose up to two months’ worth of learning.

Not only is this fate terrible, considering the great difficulty that your child went to this year to learn his multiplication tables or figure out the complexities of the solar system, but it makes the return to school in September all the more stressful, as kids struggle to return to routines and re-sharpen their now rusty mental saws.

Looking for an easy way to circumvent summer learning loss? There are many things you can do, but one of the easiest and most pleasant is setting aside a small amount of time each evening to read with your child.

Reading aloud is beneficial to kids from kindergarten all the way up to Grade 12, believe it or not – hearing a good reader read well increases children’s fluency, builds a deeper understanding of the story, and makes reading a fun experience rather than a chore, particularly for those reluctant readers who struggle to read aloud and make sense of the words.

Plus it gives you the chance to talk about the story, and about other issues that spring from what you’re reading. Some of my best conversations with my seven-year old have happened during storytime at night, nestled in her canopy bed in the gentle glow of the bedside lamp.

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With that in mind, I’ll be profiling some great kids’ books this summer, aimed at readers of all ages from the littlest ones to the older grades. Set aside a time each night – anywhere from 15 to 45 minutes, depending on your child’s age and attention span, and stop that summer brain drain in its tracks!

Lately, my daughter and I have been exploring those perennial children’s classics, the works of E.B. White. This author, always a favourite with kids from the publication of his first children’s book, Stuart Little, in 1945. These books are easy enough for a read-aloud with a very young child – I read Charlotte’s Web aloud to Grace for the first time when she was only three – but the subject matter is universal enough to read aloud to any kid up to the age of 12.

Charlotte’s Web: Virtually everyone has read this book. Today, more than 60 years after its initial publication, this delightful story of the unlikely friendship between a pig and a spider is still read in schools and loved by children and adults alike. The affable pig Wilbur, the runt of his litter, is spared an early and untimely death by the intervention of a little girl named Fern, and spends his days on Fern’s uncle’s farm. His growing friendship with Charlotte, a quiet but talented barn spider, is sweetly heartwarming and comedic, and the ending, which everyone knows but which I won’t spoil anyway, never fails to jerk a few tears. The themes of true friendship, persistence in the face of adversity and overlooking someone’s differences to see the innate beauty within are good conversation-starters for kids of all ages.

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Stuart Little: This is probably my favourite E.B. White book, about a family whose youngest son happens to look like a mouse, complete with whiskers, a long tail and very short stature. Much of the book follows Stuart’s attempts to live life in a world made for big people, but the latter half, in which Stuart leaves home in search of his best friend, a pretty brown bird named Margalo, speaks to the wanderlust that kindles in nearly everyone’s heart at the sight of an open road and a sunny sky.

This book makes little ones laugh out loud at Stuart’s misadventures, but again it also contains themes suitable for older readers, including the struggles faced by those who are different in a world made for “normal” people.

The Trumpet of the Swan: Perhaps E.B. White’s least-known children’s book, this one has a certain loveliness to it. Louis, a trumpeter swan, is born without a voice. His inability to speak or trumpet as a swan should puts him at a distinct disadvantage, particularly when he sets his sights on a lovely young female swan named Serena. With the help of his father, a stately cob with a penchant for long-winded speeches, Louis decides to make up for his lack of a voice by learning

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to read, write and play an actual trumpet. His travels all across the US and into Canada, from his summer job as a bugler at a boys’ camp to a jazz gig at a nightclub in Philadelphia, make for interesting reading.

While this book isn’t quite as engaging to the younger reader as Charlotte’s Web or Stuart Little, smaller children will identify with Louis’ difficulty fitting in – what kid hasn’t felt like the odd swan out on the playground at school? – and will enjoy the swan’s many exploits. Older readers will dig into the deeper ideas in the book, including the importance of overcoming adversity, making amends when you’ve hurt someone, and accepting yourself for who you are.

Happy reading!