Monday, September 26, 2011

The Story of Charlotte's Web (Michael Sims)

I would bet that there is not a person alive who has not read, or at least heard of, Charlotte's Web. It is consistently ranked as the bestselling children's book of all time. Let those words sink in...OF ALL TIME. I remember reading it back when schools divided their reading groups into the "Bluebird" group, and the "Red Robin" group. There is a reason that the story of Charlotte, Wilbur, Templeton, and Fern is so popular with both children and adults is timeless.

Even though the title of Sims' book is The Story of Charlotte's Web, it is not just about that. It is the story of author E.B. White's life, born Elwyn White. The White family lived in Mount Vernon, New York, but spent many a summer in Maine. From the beginning of his life, White was very uneasy around people, especially girls, and loved nothing better than to be with animals. I take exception to Sims' subtitle, E.B. White's Eccentric Life in Nature and the Birth of an American Classic. I am not sure that I would define him as eccentric just because he preferred nature to everyday life. I think that he was able to find himself this way, and fortunately for us, he did. Otherwise, would we have a Stuart Little, Trumpet of the Swan, or Charlotte's Web? Probably not.

The most fascinating part of this book is reading the research that went into writing Charlotte's Web. Even though White was writing about fictional animals (but sometimes basing them on real-life counterparts), he wanted to be as accurate as possible (in Charlotte's egg-laying, for example). Just as fascinating is when legendary illustrator, Garth Williams, joins the team. Sims states that Williams' original drawing for the cover fetched $155,000 at auction.

The setting of Charlotte's Web is based on the White farm, still a running farm in Maine. White chose to live in a bucolic setting, most comfortable in his appreciation of the animals. If that is "eccentric", then lucky for us, that's what he was.


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