In which Annie (high school teacher, mother of two small girls and a baby boy) and her aunt Deborah (children's bookseller, mother of two young women in their 20s) discuss children's books and come up with annotated lists.

Friday, February 10, 2012

E.B. White: some writer

Dear Annie,

Charlotte's Web: wonderful book,  intense family experience.

You quoted the book's vivid opening lines.  I offer the closing ones:
Wilbur never forgot Charlotte.  Although he loved her children and grandchildren dearly, none of the new spiders ever quite took her place in his heart.  She was in a class by herself.  It is not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer.  Charlotte was both.
 We often think of Charlotte's Web when we're in Maine, where large spiders are frequent residents in our big old house and barn.  As you may recall, we tend to refrain from banishing all of Charlotte's descendants from our screen porch -- some years they're inside the screen, some years outside.
screen spider at sunset.
I wonder what Eleanor will think of the spiders the next time you guys visit.

I love the way White draws the reader into the world of the farm and the wonderfully individual personalities of the animals.  Even as we the adult readers can see the inevitability of death (and what are they raising those geese for?), lives are lived to their fullest.  There's Templeton's unapologetic selfishness, the dithering of the geese, Charlotte's intelligence and caring.  And Fern and Wilbur, both growing up before our eyes.  And the names!  Fern and Avery Arable, the Zuckermans, Henry Fussy.

White, like Charlotte, cared deeply about language.  I first became aware of
The Elements of Style
, by William Strunk, Jr. and White when I was in high school.  I have no idea if it's a book teenagers still know about.  Do your students?  Strunk had been a professor of White's; he had written a small book laying out rules and guidelines for writers.  In 1957, five years after the publication of Charlotte's Web and a decade after Strunk's death, White revised the book, adding a few essays of his own, and it's been in print ever since.  In the introduction, White uses not a lot of words to create a sense of his professor, and to put the reader there in the lecture hall in a way that feels not unlike sitting on Fern's stool watching the conversation:
"Omit needless words!" cries the author on page 17, and into that imperative Will Strunk really put his heart and soul.  In the days when I was sitting in his class, he omitted so many needless words, and omitted them so forcibly and with such eagerness and obvious relish, that he often seemed in the position of having short-changed himself, a man left with nothing more to say yet with time to fill, a radio prophet who had outdistanced the clock.  Will Strunk got out of this predicament by a simple trick: he uttered every sentence three times.  When he delivered his oration on brevity to the class, he leaned forward over his desk, grasped his coat lapels in his hands, and in a husky, conspiratorial voice said, "Rule thirteen.  Omit needless words!  Omit needless words!  Omit needless words!"
We're all so glad that White kept the needed words in.

Love,

Deborah

1 comment:

  1. We've been enjoying Doreen Cornin's Diary of a Worm this week and there's a spider who writes in her web in that - i'm sure it's a nod to Charlotte.

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