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The Story of Charlotte's Web: E. B. White's Eccentric Life in…

by Michael Sims

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3012362,287 (4.14)33
As he was composing what was to become his most enduring and popular book, E. B. White was obeying that oft repeated maxim: "Write what you know." Helpless pigs, silly geese, clever spiders, greedy rats, White knew all of these characters in the barns and stables where he spent his favorite hours. Painfully shy his entire life, "this boy," White once wrote of himself, "felt for animals a kinship he never felt for people." It is all the more impressive, therefore, how many people have felt a kinship with E. B. White. With Charlotte's Web, which has gone on to sell more than 45 million copies, the man William Shawn called "the most companionable of writers" lodged his own character, the avuncular author, into the hearts of generations of readers. In this book the author shows how White solved what critic Clifton Fadiman once called "the standing problem of the juvenile fantasy writer: how to find, not another Alice, but another rabbit hole" by mining the raw ore of his childhood friendship with animals in Mount Vernon, New York, translating his own passions and contradictions, delights and fears, into an all time classic. Blending White's correspondence with the likes of Ursula Nordstrom, James Thurber, and Harold Ross, the E. B. White papers at Cornell, and the archives of HarperCollins and the New Yorker into his own narrative, the author brings to life the shy boy whose animal stories, real and imaginery, made him famous around the world.… (more)



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I was a few months old when E. B. White's classic children's book Charlotte's Web was published. My First Grade teacher read the book aloud to my class. As a girl, I read it many times, and when our son was born I read it to him as well. And the older I become the more I realize the impact the story had on my life.

Knowing my esteem for the book, my son gifted me Michael's Sims book Charlotte's Web: E. B. White's Eccentric Life in Nature and the Birth of an American Classic for Christmas. It was a lovely read, entertaining and enlightening.

White had a love of nature and animals. As a child, his family spent their summers in Maine, and in spite of his allergies, it was the highlight of the year. As an adult, he and his wife Katherine purchased a farm in Maine--with a view of Mount Cadalliac on Mt. Desert Isle across the water. My husband and I spent many summers camping at Acadia National Park! It is a beautiful area.

White admired the popular columnist Don Marquis who created the characters Archy--a cockroach--and Mehitible--a cat. White liked how Marquis kept his animal characters true to their nature while using them for social satire. Archy inspired the character of Charlotte.

I was a teen when I discovered Marquis on a friend's parent's bookshelf. I borrowed the book and later bought my own copy.

White's first children's book was the best-selling Stuart Little, illustrated by Garth Williams who was just beginning his career. Williams was established by the time he contributed his art to Charlotte's Web. He created beloved illustrations for Little Golden Books and authors like Margaret Wise Brown and Laura Ingalls Wilder.

I enjoyed the details about White's writing process. He worked on the novel over a long period, carefully considering every aspect, even setting it aside for a year. He researched spiders in detail. He sketched his farm as a model. He thought carefully about what words Charlotte would spin into her web. White hated rats, and kept Templeton's nature intact without a personality change. Fern was a later addition.

Sims reproduces the text from the manuscripts with White's editing. I am always fascinated by seeing an author's edits and the development of a story.

White's name was also well known to me as it appears on The Elements of Style, which started as a pamphlet written by White's professor Strunk!

White's wife Katherine wrote a column on gardening, Onward and Upward in the Garden, which was published in a book form after her death--and which I had read upon its publication! ( )
  nancyadair | Mar 21, 2019 |
Charming book about the extraordinary life of the author of Charlotte's Web and all that went into crafting such a wonderful book. Guess what I'll be reading next? ( )
  Luke_Brown | Sep 10, 2016 |
If "The Story of Charlotte's Web" by Michael Sims reads as much like a biography of E.B. White as the story of how White's most famous book came to be, it may be because White's whole life was about the writing of that single book. His boyhood interest in animals and nature in general laid the groundwork for "Charlotte's Web." His development as a writer and the attention to detail he learned as a regular contributor to The New Yorker magazine groomed him for writing his masterpiece. His move to his Maine farm with his wife, Katharine, an editor at The New Yorker, inspired him and provided the opportunity for his imagination to soar.

White made other notable contributions to literature. His essays are still read today. His other novels for children, "Stuart Little" and "The Trumpet of the Swan," are themselves classics. "The Elements of Style," in which White revised and improved upon the work of his college professor, William Strunk Jr., remains a valuable resource for writers old and young. Yet White reached the pinnacle of his career with the publication of his story about the spider who saved the life of a pig.

Sims gives his readers amazing detail about how the book came to be. An actual spider at White's farm inspired it. White devoted hours to studying that spider and others to observe their behavior. He poured over books about spiders. Maybe real spiders don't spin English words into their webs, but otherwise White wanted Charlotte to behave like a barn spider. He even insisted that, children's book or not, she must die after laying her eggs because that is what real spiders do.

Sims provides several examples of how White revised his manuscript over and over again, crossing out words and trying new ones in their place. He agonized over what to name certain characters and what Charlotte should say about Wilbur in her web. "Pig Supreme" was among the contenders until White settled on "Some Pig."

Anyone who has enjoyed Charlotte's Web, and that means millions of readers, will enjoy reading what Sims has to say about that book and the man who wrote it. ( )
  hardlyhardy | Jan 29, 2014 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
Michael Sims has written a biography of E.B. White that reads like a story. He doesn't focus on White's relationships with people as much as his relationship with nature, natural science, farming and writing. E.B. White, known as Andy, shines through these pages as a shy, insecure man with such an affinity for animals and writing that you can't help but admire and like him. The book covers White's life from birth to death, his early jobs, his career with The New Yorker, his wife, and his writing. It's a very enjoyable, informative book and I know I'll be reading Charlotte's Web again soon, as well as my favourite of his, Stuart Little.
1 vote katylit | May 25, 2012 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
Michael Sims does an excellent job portraying T.H. White's fascination with nature and how it contributed to his writing.
  2wonderY | Dec 28, 2011 |
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But real life is only one kind of life-- there is also the life of the imagination.
To the amazing Dr. Patterson
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