New looks at two children's classics: 'Charlotte's Web' and 'Little House on the Prarie'
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"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 annual summaries of best-selling children's books in the United States, it often outsells "Winnie the Pooh."
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 recounts the wellsprings -- familial, psychological, environmental, historical, educational, emotional and every other "al" you can think of -- about the little novel that tells how a spider named Charlotte saved a pig named Wilbur from being rendered into bacon.
Mr. Sims, a Greensburg-area author and editor of many other books, 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," and White found it, for himself and 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, Mr. 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."
White loved taking care of the animals there. Mr. Sims' writing captures 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. Because he didn't know spiders like he did farm animals, he researched the arachnids in scientific tomes about them.
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" as White pondered how might a pig be saved from the farmer's plans for it?
Mr. 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," Mr. Sims says. That line is, "Where's Papa going with that ax?" The author calls the barn the most important character in the book. It is "a stage for birth and death and the rhythms of life."
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" by preserving "in amber his response to the world."
-- Roger K. Miller
An immersion experience is a hallmark of the obsessed literary fan, whether real or fictional (think Shannon Hale's "Austenland").
Children's book editor Wendy McClure attempted her own during her exploration of all things Laura Ingalls Wilder, as told in her new book.
Her brief homesteader weekend turned out to be a frightening (for her) but hilarious (for readers) encounter with people convinced they'll need the Ingalls family's survival skills as the world nears its end.
Despite being creeped out by the End Timers, Ms. McClure realized people who share a connection to the Little House stories may have widely different visions of the them, especially those who watched the long-running "Little House on the Prairie" TV series (she never did) as opposed to reading the books.
Ms. McClure rediscovered those books as an adult and was comforted to find everything just as she left it -- "the pumpkins stored away in the attic, the nails in the hollow smoke-log where the deer meat hung."
She also acknowledges the disappointment she felt visiting locations from the books and how they didn't quite measure up to her expectations.
Readers might feel the same way about this uneven book, which could have benefited from a tighter narrative.
Still, the book is well-researched and is sprinkled with interesting facts about Wilder, her daughter, Rose Wilder Lane (who sounds alternately fascinating and miserable), and how the two women recast the mother's pioneer childhood into the familiar Little House series.
Originally published in the 1930s and '40s, the series was extremely popular in the 1970s when young girls devoured paperback editions and tuned in to the TV series based on the stories.
By the end of a year spent delving deep into the Little House phenomenon, Ms. McClure had churned butter, seen countless girls wearing sun bonnets (she bought several herself), sampled a Little House-themed cocktail(!) and slept in a covered wagon.
Meanwhile, if Ms. McClure is in love with "Laura World," she has a serious crush on American Girl world; some of her best writing in "The Wilder Life" describes a visit to Chicago's American Girl store. This line of pricey dolls from various eras, their accessories and books that was launched in the 1980s continues to thrive.
At one point the two worlds met when she spotted a complete set of Little House paperbacks in a display about Julie, the 1970s American Girl, and recognized the edition as the one she'd owned.
-- MiChelle Jones
First Published June 15, 2011 12:00 am