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Some years ago, I discovered and read a biography of Beatrix Potter and loved it. It was enlightening to read about her solitary life and how difficult it was for a woman to find a way to publish a book during the time she lived. I was hooked on biographies of children’s writers, and have read quite a few through the years, some biographical and some autobiographical. They are useful when I want to tell stories about writers and their lives to my students, and it is inspiring to learn how other writers have lived their writing lives.
The latest biography I have completed is one I want to share, The Story of Charlotte’s Web, by Michael Sims. I have also lately been re-reading an old poetry book/memoir by Richard Peck, titled Bee Tree and Other Stuff. I mention it because I’ve found some parallels between the two books, mostly that both authors appeared to have much influenced by farming and growing up surrounded by nature. In his book, Peck writes a lovely poem called Old Gray Barn, and then writes, “Barns hold memories as sweetly as they hold hay.” It’s so exactly the sentiment that I read in the chronicling of E.B. White’s thoughts about the setting of Charlotte’s Web.
Nearly every nature experience in White’s life seems to carry him to the point of writing about a pig that could be saved by an industrious spider. In this biography, the author shows the childhood of White as much influenced by his freedom to roam outside and to spend time observing all kinds of animals in places near his home. As a very young child, White spends time in the stable, its basement, and in the barn nearby, befriending all the usual animals there like the horses and dogs, but also the unusual, like mice, birds and spiders, and learning that he hated the rats and the deeds that they did as much as he loved the other animals. It is here as well that he begins a lifelong interest in spiders.
As the book moves through White’s life, it shows the further development of his interests in nature all the way to the writing of Charlotte’s Web, even though he continued to live much of the time in New York City, and as many of you probably know, writing for the New Yorker magazine. The biography leads the reader to Charlotte’s Web, but through a path that shows such details of White’s life like his shyness in things romantic, his family life, the beginnings of his career as a staff member of the New Yorker at its birth, his marriage, and the idyllic farm where he lived so many of his happiest days.
There is much to be shared with our student writers from this book. White’s actions were interesting, like taking a year studying spiders before he even began writing, and still another year he waited for the book to settle so he could look at it with fresh eyes. And we ask our students to finish a piece in a few weeks! The biography chronicles his thoughts, false starts, revisions, and worries about Charlotte’s Web. It describes his notes where he sketched the barnyard, adding some paper because he runs out of room. It is fascinating in its depth of showing the way of writers working, thinking, messing about, but oh, so seriously for the story. White is quoted from his notes: “It is a straight report from the barn cellar, which I dearly love, having spent so many fine hours there, winter and summer, spring and fall, good times and bad times.”
Perhaps the book is too long to use as a true read aloud, but parts would be terrific to share in different workshop lessons, or during writing sessions for inspiration. The story says that White did not always give advice, but that he once wrote a college girl that she must “remember that writing is translation, and the opus to be translated is yourself.”
Finally, Andy (as he was called in adulthood) White said, “I write largely for myself and am content to believe that what is good enough for me is good enough for a youngster.”