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

Michael Sims

Walker Books




320 Pages



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While composing what would become his most enduring and popular book, E. B. White obeyed that oft-repeated maxim: "Write what you know." Helpless pigs, silly geese, clever spiders, greedy rats—White knew all of these characters in the barns and stables where he spent his favorite hours as a child and adult. Painfully shy, "this boy," White once wrote of himself, "felt for animals a kinship he never felt for people." It's all the more impressive, therefore, how many people have felt a kinship with E. B. White.

Michael Sims chronicles White's animal-rich childhood, his writing about urban nature for the New Yorker, his scientific research into how spiders spin webs and lay eggs, his friendship with his legendary editor, Ursula Nordstrom, the composition and publication of his masterpiece, and his ongoing quest to recapture an enchanted childhood.


Praise for The Story of Charlotte's Web

"A fine stylist, Mr. Sims portrays these scenes with a beauty and an economy of language that would make the co-author of The Elements of Style proud . . . It's as if White were a bell and his biographer another, catching his life's resonance."—Anthony Esolen, The Wall Street Journal

"Sims's . . . prose [is] clear, direct and concise: the ultimate homage. His book is a lovely and empathetic testament to E.B. White's vision of 'nature publishing herself'."—Valerie Sayers, The Washington Post

"A full, engaging account . . . The Story of Charlotte's Web unfolds in a way that White might have appreciated: It ambles, pauses to observe the smallest details, and takes its time. Best of all, this book is likely to encourage readers to experience the pleasures of White's novel all over again."—Carmela Ciuraru, Los Angeles Times

"[An] immensely charming book."—Kate Tuttle, The Boston Globe

"Quotidian memories have given us more great works than we can count . . . Michael Sims illuminates on such tale inspired by E.B. White's childhood spent playing in barns and stables."—Stacey Mickelbart, The New Yorker

"Sims' interest in nature and literature makes The Story of Charlotte's Web, like his other books, a fascinating read . . . His graceful book demonstrates that describing the life of E.B. White and the creation of his greatest work are kindred things."—Kathy Ewing, The Plain Dealer (Cleveland)

"Retraces White's path in writing the book and, in so doing, helps us to understand how so truly 'artless' a work of art was created . . . A paean to a great work and a window into the uniquely gifted man who created it." —Marjorie Kehe, The Christian Science Monitor

"Wonderful . . . Sims' lively and detailed excursion into the mystery of how White's classic came to be is a perfect read for this season: full of grass and insects, pigs and summer rain."—Maureen Corrigan, NPR's Fresh Air

"An elegant homage to the creative process . . . Sims' cameos of White collaborators are vivid; the publishing world of the time is caught in amber. Although this is not a conventional biography, much is gleaned by study of whites imaginative response to the world around him and the writer's faith in clarity, honesty and directness."—Rebecca K. Morrison, The Independent (UK)

"What, I wondered, could anyone bring to White's opus that hadn't already been said elsewhere and, most likely, better? Having read it I can now answer: plenty. Sims gives White and his story a bright new light . . . And so here I am, chip off my shoulder, to recommend this book without reservations. Michael Sims' The Story of Charlotte's Web is not only for E. B. White fans and lovers of Charlotte's Web, but for anyone who enjoys a thoughtfully researched and written work of literary nonfiction." —Monica Edinger, The Huffington Post

"Built on revealing glimpses of how 'reality and fantasy make good bedfellows,' as White himself wrote . . . Sims traces how much endless rewriting as well as research on spider-web construction went into Charlotte's Web. White's handwritten drafts, at Cornell's archives, are filled with words that are crossed out, entire scenes that are deleted, and notes to himself in the margins, ordering: 'Fix. Make Better.' . . . The Story of Charlotte's Web should encourage re-readings of Charlotte's Web."—Bob Minzesheimer, USA Today

"In this lovingly rendered portrait, Sims details a life of careful listening. insatiable curiosity, and empathy toward all living creatures from people to spiders to pigs. . . The final line of Charlotte's Web is one I had long forgotten but immediately remembered upon reading: It is not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer. Charlotte was both. . . . It could also be said that E.B. White was both a true friend and a good writer. So is Sims, who has opened the doors and windows in his gentle and wise biography."—Kerry Madden, Los Angeles Review of Books

"An affectionate homage."—Entertainment Weekly

"Stunning. Sims' imaginatiative re-enactment of pivotal scenes in White's life is unconventional yet compelling . . . grounding the drama in solid historical research. Sims deftly handles the writing and publication of Charlotte's Web, building thumbnail portraits of the legendary children's book editiitor Ursula Nordstrom and illustrator Garth Williams. But this biography is at its best in the barnyard, illuminating that 'sacred space' E.B. White brought to life in his beloved children's book."—Catherine Hollis, BookPage

"An affectionate biography . . . Packed with the same kind of sensory detail its subject reveled in, this account is an honorable addition to the literature of letters."—Kirkus Reviews

"Sims, as a droll observer of the natural world and editor of the annotated edition of one of E.B. White's formative influences, Don Marquis's Archy and Mehitabelbel, is uniquely qualified to write what is a biography of Charlotte's Web as much as it's a biography of White. White's childhood fascination with the world's smaller denizens and his literary career, including his storied history at The New Yorker, are traced by Sims to their climax in the germination of the plot for Charlotte's Web."—Megan Hodge, Library Journal

"Sims immerses himself in White's oeuvre and channels his lucid prose style . . . Admirers of White's essays and luminous children's literature will be delighted by this amiable chronicle."—Publishers Weekly

Reviews from Goodreads



  • Michael Sims

  • Michael Sims is the author of acclaimed nonfiction books such as Apollo's Fire and Adam's Navel, and the editor of anthologies including The Dead Witness and Dracula's Guest, connoisseurs' collections of Victorian detective and vampire stories, respectively. He lives near Pittsburgh.