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Originally published Saturday, July 2, 2011 at 7:05 PM

Book review

'The Story of Charlotte's Web:' How E.B. White conceived and wrote a children's classic

Michael Sims' "The Story of Charlotte's Web" chronicles the wellsprings of inspiration for the author of the children's classic "Charlotte's Web" — E.B. White, a man who traveled in the most sophisticated circles but always retreated to the company of animals on his Maine farm.

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'The Story of Charlotte's Web: E.B. White's Eccentric Life in Nature and the Birth of an American Classic'

by Michael Sims

Walker & Co., 307 pp., $25

"Animals are a weakness with me," E.B. White said, a statement that his life and writings bear out. It is not surprising to learn, then, that in writing about animals (and spiders) in what has become his most popular book, "Charlotte's Web," he was to a large extent writing about himself.

First published nearly 60 years ago, "Charlotte's Web" perennially sells tens of thousands of copies around the world. It has been translated into 35 languages. In a Publishers Weekly poll of librarians, teachers, publishers and authors it was ranked as the best children's book ever published in the United States. It is beyond popular; it is beloved.

In "The Story of Charlotte's Web," Michael Sims does exactly what his title says: He tells the wellsprings — familial, psychological, environmental, historical, educational, emotional — of the famous little novel about how a spider named Charlotte saved a pig named Wilbur from being rendered into bacon.

Sims, editor or author of many other books ("Apollo's Fire," "Darwin's Orchestra"), does more than that. Besides providing a pocket biography of White, he explains what writing "Charlotte's Web" meant to the author and what reading it means to its young readers, things that are two sides of the same coin: The "standing problem of juvenile-fantasy" fiction, critic Clifton Fadiman said, was finding "not another Alice, but another rabbit hole." White found it — for himself, of course, but also for his readers.

Elwyn Brooks White grew up among animals in the early years of the 20th century at his family's comfortable home in Mount Vernon, N.Y. A shy, fearful, solitary boy, the last of seven children, he "felt for animals a kinship he never felt for people," as he wrote about himself years later.

That pattern and outlook continued, Sims writes, throughout a life "plagued by wild fantasies and indefinable nostalgia" and a "vague sense of yearning and loss." Even after becoming a celebrated writer for The New Yorker magazine (and marrying its fiction editor, Katharine Angell) and moving to a small farm on the coast of Maine, to flee "the complexities of adult life ... he hid behind animals."

He loved the barn and taking care of the animals there. Sims' writing captures some of White's affection for his creatures and fits the mood of his subject nicely: "Flotillas of black coots ... Chittering squadrons of barn swallows."

White's inveterate curiosity eventually led him to study the spiders in his barn and their web-weaving. Since he didn't know spiders like he did farm animals, he researched in scientific tomes about them.

But it was another invertebrate that was an early inspiration for Charlotte — Archy, the famous cockroach of newspaper columnist Don Marquis. It was the literate cockroach's wit that attracted White, but Archy also fit into the literary tradition of talking animals that had beguiled him since childhood.

Another impulse also drove the book: White was troubled by the morality of raising and then slaughtering animals that only a short time before he had lovingly tended and that, in a sense, had taken him into their confidence. Such concerns percolated into "Charlotte's Web": How might a pig be saved from the farmer's plans for it?

Sims then carefully documents White's creative process: how he added and subtracted, tried this and deleted that. As always in writing he believed that directness and honesty would carry the day. "Morality stalked the scene from the first line," Sims says — that line is, "Where's Papa going with that ax?" — but "overall Andy's theme was the joy of being alive."

White's masterpiece is almost unthinkable without the pitch-perfect illustrations of Garth Williams (who had also illustrated "Stuart Little"), which materially added to its success (and to Williams' reputation). But ultimately, the author concludes, "Charlotte's Web" is "a summary of what it felt like to be E.B. White"; it "preserved in amber his response to the world."

Roger K. Miller is a novelist and freelance writer and reviewer.

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