Monday, 21 April 2008

A children’s reader on law

When one of my children was still a baby, I dreamt they were reading a hitherto unknown book by Dr Seuss titled The Little Lawyer. I was obviously a parent with ambitions! While I've never come across that book in waking life, I've had my eye out for children's literature that might serve in a children's reader on law.

One candidate would be EB White's Stuart Little, in particular chapter twelve, The Schoolroom. I'm currently reading Richard Reeves' biography of John Stuart Mill, but despite carrying it round for the whole of the Easter holiday, I'm still several hundred pages away from finishing it. Stuart Little is definitely an easier place to start thinking about similar ideas.

In chapter twelve, Stuart Little, a boy who seems very much like a mouse, takes on the job of substitute teacher for a day. His students agree enthusiastically with his suggestion to skip arithmetic, and he is just as short with the subjects of spelling, writing and social studies.

Instead he proposes a discussion on the topic of "the King of the World", modified to Chairman of the World when one child objects that kings are old-fashioned. There follows an examination of what laws will be needed if Stuart is to be Chairman of the World.

"Don't eat mushrooms, they might be toadstools," is one suggestion, but Stuart points out that this is "merely a bit of friendly advice," and "law is much more solemn than advice."

"Nix on swiping anything" is then the first law agreed upon, but the following suggestion, "never poison anything but rats," is rejected by Stuart as unfair to rats. An extended discussion of rat rights ensues.

A law against fighting is proposed, but rejected as impractical. "Men like to fight," says Stuart, "but you're getting warm."

Finally they come up with "absolutely no being mean," as their second law. There follows an energetic bit of role-play as Stuart and the children try out their new legal system.

The laws agreed upon are unexceptional, perhaps. The interesting part is in the laws rejected, and the arguments made.

There are many other pleasures in Stuart Little aside from the condensed legal argument, and the drawings by Garth Williams are wonderful of course. (I've written a bit about some books for younger readers illustrated by him over here.) The film of Stuart Little should be avoided. 

UPDATE: Here’s a very interesting article on the history of Stuart Little, The Lion and the Mouse by Jill Lepore, from The New Yorker, July 21 2008.

Illustration copyright renewed © Garth Williams, 1973

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