I reviewed four middle grade books for the latest special children’s book section of the New York Times Book Review: My Father’s Words by Patricia MacLachlan; Saving Winslow by Sharon Creech; Squirm by Carl Hiassen; Winnie’s Great War by Lindsay Mattick and Josh Greenhut. You can read the reviews HERE.
While Charlotte’s Web and Stuart Little get all the glory, E.B. White’s third children’s book, The Trumpet of the Swan (1970), is relatively overlooked. And this is a crying shame! I loved it when I was eight, and now, reading it again, I realize there’s even more to admire.
As you may recall, the story is about Louis, a trumpeter swan who, born mute, compensates by learning to read, write and play an actual trumpet. Because he is a swan of honor, Louis feels obligated to pay for his instrument, which his father stole for him. So he takes on a string of jobs, including a camp counselor gig in Maine and a nightclub stint in Philly. Although the plot is admittedly daffy, White’s prose is at its most eloquent and luminous and the book is just very … soulful. John Updike, who reviewed the book for the Times(!), said it was “the most spacious and serene of the three [E.B. White novels] … the one most imbued with the author’s sense of the precious instinctual heritage represented by wild nature.”
But what was my favorite discovery upon re-reading the book? The hilarious character of Louis’s father, a blustery cob who never uses one word when he could use ten. Here’s what he tells little Louis after he steals him the trumpet:
“I have been on a journey to the haunts of men. I visited a great city teeming with life and commerce. Whilst there, I picked up a gift for you, which I bestow upon you with my love and my blessing… Learn to play it Louis, and life will be smoother and richer and gayer for you!”
“Man, in his folly, has given me a mortal wound. The red blood flows in a steady trickle from my veins. My strength fails. But even in death’s final hour, I shall deliver the money for the trumpet. Good-bye, life! Good-bye, beautiful world! … I, who am about to die, salute you. I must die gracefully as only a swan can.”
Every time the bird opens his beak, it’s priceless. And when you remember that White co-wrote The Elements of Style — the writer’s handbook that commanded “Omit needless words” — it’s even better.
Remember in The Trumpet of The Swan, when slippery Abe “Lucky” Lucas hires Louis to perform in a Philadelphia nightclub? (This comes after Louis’s success with the swan boats at the Boston Public Garden.) Louis takes the new gig because he needs the cash to pay his debts, but…
“The place was big and crowded and noisy. Everyone seemed to be talking too loudly, eating too much, and drinking too much. Most birds like to go to sleep at sundown. They do not want to stay up half the night entertaining people. But Louis was a musician, and musicians can’t choose their working hours… Every Saturday night Louis collected his pay — five hundred dollars.”
Five hundred dollars a week for ten weeks? As my brother points out, Louis was making some serious money. If you adjust this for inflation — E.B. White published the novel in 1970 — it’s equivalent to almost $3,000 a week today.
Ann Patchett and I met years ago when she had just published her second novel, Taft, and was writing freelance stories for Vogue, where I was an assistant on what felt like full-time cappucino duty. I remember her as one of the kindest people I had ever met, and though we later fell out of touch, I always held on to the fact that I knew her once. When I read Ann’s captivating Atlantic story about how she came to open Parnassus Books, her independent bookstore in her hometown of Nashville it gave me the courage (and the excuse) to get back in touch.
So, what books did Ann love as a kid? “I didn’t learn to read until the third grade!” she told me. “I found reading terrifying.” She wrote in mirror letters and when she looked at a piece of paper, she says, “I was never sure if I should start on the right or the left.” She recalls being in perfect awe of the books her big sister used to read. “She had Babar and The Little Prince. The type of those books was printed in cursive, which I couldn’t read. And she was reading them in French, which I couldn’t understand. So just looking at them I felt like my head was going to explode.”
Like a child who still crawls at 18 months, but then skips walking and goes straight to running, Ann leapfrogged the children’s books stage almost entirely. By the time she became a real reader, she jokes, “I was ready for Saul Bellow.” Still, she had a few faves to share.
Ann Patchett’s Favorite Children’s Books
1) The Lonely Doll by Dare Wright
“This was by far my favorite picture book. I loved that it looked like no other book I had ever seen and it was a story I could really relate to. I think of it as the great ‘child of divorce’ book — my parents split up when I was four — because it’s about a little girl who gets left behind. In the story, the little doll and the little bear do some mean, naughty things. They are punished, but then they are forgiven and everything is made whole again. I went to Catholic school for years, so this, of course, made perfect sense.”
2) Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White
“When I did finally start reading, I was a real Charlotte’s Web girl. I would read it over and over and over again. I got a toy pig for my 9th birthday and I stopped eating animals with hooves. I’m still a vegetarian to this day. Strangely enough, I did not read E.B. White’s other books. To be honest I didn’t even know that E.B. White had written other books.”
3) The Little House series by Laura Ingalls Wilder
“Except for Farmer Boy, which I skipped because I was uninterested in absolutely anything having to do with boys back then, I loved all these books. And much later when my grandmother was dying — she passed away almost 8 years ago — I read the whole series again to her. Because she had dementia it was so hard to find the right books, but these were perfect. Reading them aloud was a very moving experience.”
Ann Patchett’s next novel will be out from HarperCollins in November. Parnassus Books continues to flourish. And — in case you missed it — last year Ann published a lovely mini memoir/writer’s guide (a Kindle Single, in fact!) called The Getaway Car: A Practical Memoir About Writing and Life.