On my desk, among the clutter of black and white photos of my grandparents, a card from my daughter, and a pile of receipts that need to be entered into the budget, is the book, The Elements of Style by William Strunk and E.B. White. I guess it shouldn’t surprise me that one of this book’s authors is the same man that gave us the children’s classic, Charlotte’s Web.
I heard Charlotte’s Web from a grade school teacher who read to us every afternoon following lunch recess. Having been raised in a “city” (Idaho sized, but a city to us), life on a farm sounded enchanting. And a barn seemed like the best place to have in my backyard. I wanted one with a rope swing. I think I even believed then that spiders, who lived in barns, could spin webs with words in them.
E.B. White had a way of working lessons into his story. He also wrote with a wry humor that appealed to the adults who read the story aloud to children.
“I only distribute pigs to early risers,” said Mr. Arabel. “Fern was up at daylight, trying to rid the world of injustice. As a result, she now has a pig. A small one to be sure, but nevertheless, a pig. It just shows what can happen if a person gets out of bed promptly.”
One early fall morning in 1949, E.B. White walked into the barn of his farm in Maine and saw a spider web. That in itself was nothing new, but this web, with its elaborate loops and whorls that glistened with early morning dew, caught his attention. Weeks passed until one cold October evening when he noticed that the spider was spinning what turned out to be an egg sac. White never saw the spider again and, so, when he had to return later that fall to New York City to his job as a regular contributor to The New Yorker magazine, White took out a razor blade and cut the silken egg sac out of the web. He put the sac in an empty candy box, punched some holes in it, and absent-mindedly put the box atop his bedroom bureau in New York.
Weeks later, a movement on that bureau alerted him to the fact that tiny spiderlings were making a Great Escape through the air holes. White was delighted at this affirmation of life and left the hundreds of barn spiderlings alone for the next week or so — to spin webs from his hair brush to his nail scissors to his mirror — until, finally, the cleaning lady complained.
Here is an excerpt from Sim’s book:
More than a quarter century after his death, E. B. White lives in our cultural dialogue. Some of his personal essays are canonized anthology standards, and to the connoisseur of the genre he stands beside Montaigne. Students underline every axiom in “The Elements of Style.” “Charlotte’s Web” is better known than “Moby-Dick” or “Huckleberry Finn” and usually described as “beloved.” How beloved? “Charlotte’s Web” has already sold many millions of copies; in annual summaries of bestselling children’s books in the United States, often it still outsells even “Winnie-the-Pooh”. For Publishers Weekly, a poll of librarians, teachers, publishers, and authors, asked to list the best children’s books ever published in the United States, set “Charlotte’s Web” firmly in first place. A 2000 survey listed “Charlotte’s Web” as the bestselling children’s book in U.S. history, with “Stuart Little” and “The Trumpet of the Swan” both following in the top one hundred. As of 2010, “Charlotte’s Web” has been translated into thirty-five foreign languages. Thus every day somewhere in the world, countless children and adults are opening the book and turning to the first page and reading in English or Norwegian or Chinese or Braille.
Charlotte’s Web is perfect for summer evenings with children who believe that spiders can spin webs that read “some pig.” Have your children heard the story yet?
One final note from Richard Derus, another reviewer of Sim’s book (—follow me here—this is someone writing about a book written about the man who wrote Charlotte’s Web).
So this book arrives from its publisher, all pretty and invitingly designed, and it’s about the book that changed my worldview, and it’s got that great new-book, ink-and-paper smell; well, what else to do but put down everything I was reading and all the chores I should be doing, curl up on my breezy, cool sunporch, and immerse myself in the story of the story I’ve adored for most of my life?
I am so very glad that I did. I feel refreshed and energized, ready to take on my own storytelling tasks with renewed vigor. The book isn’t life-altering, or possessed of an outsized grandeur, or elucidative of the Mysteries of the Ages, so I can’t make a case for perfection; but to anyone who, as a sensitive child, was altered by that first encounter with “Charlotte’s Web,” I recommend this book as a balm for your worn-out, worn-in adult soul.