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Michael Sims

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

A-StoryCharlottesWebMichael Sims (In the Womb: Animals, 2009; Apollo's Fire, 2007), a prominent nature writer, turns his attention from biology to biography, as he explores the life of beloved children's author E. B. White.

The Story: This slim volume--most of the work consists of endnotes and bibliographic sources--focuses on E. B. White's life and how it shaped the creation of Charlotte's Web. White was a conundrum to those who knew him personally: he was painfully shy, but he was also passionate about many issues. Working on his own farm, he wrestled with the moral issues of raising and caring for animals only to later kill and eat them. These experiences, coupled with the encouragement of his niece, prompted White to create Charlotte's Web. Sims's volume does touch on other works of White's career--including Stuart Little and his coauthorship of The Elements of Style--but the book focuses almost exclusively on the formative experiences surrounding Charlotte's Web.
Walker and Co., 307 pages. $25. ISBN 9780802777546

Wall Street Journal 4 of 5 Stars
"A fine stylist, Mr. Sims portrays these scenes [of White's life] 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

Christian Science Monitor 4 of 5 Stars
"Michael Sims 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. ... Sims wisely doesn't try to give us all of E.B. White. ... But he does give us enough to make clear how much of himself White invested in this masterpiece." Marjorie Kehe

Seattle Times 4 of 5 Stars
"Besides providing a pocket biography of White, [Sims] explains what writing Charlotte's Web meant to the author and what reading it means to its young readers. ... Sims' writing captures some of White's affection for his creatures and fits the mood of his subject nicely." Roger K. Miller

Washington Post 3.5 of 5 Stars
"If some of the passages about White's narrative methods remind us why it's more fun to read fiction than a study of how it's done, younger writers in particular may find this description of process bracing. Sims's research is thorough, his own prose clear, direct and concise: the ultimate homage." Valerie Sayers

USA Today 3.5 of 5 Stars
"It's short on original research, but accomplishes Sims' goal[s]. ... But despite Sims' subtitle, it's debatable if White, who died in 1985 at 86, was all that eccentric." Bob Minzesheimer

Critical Summary

The Story of Charlotte's Web is one of those rare biographies that will appeal to more than a more specialized readership. Most critics greatly enjoyed Sims's work, specifically noting his simple, economical use of language throughout. Elements of style, indeed. Sims's portrayal of E. B. White, however, divided some critics: some felt the characterization of the writer as an "eccentric" was on target; others felt that Sims was overreaching with that label. There are more in-depth biographies of E. B. White out there: this "microbiography" deals only with a few aspects of White's life and career.