Thursday, November 17, 2016

Thank You, Mr. E.B. White :3 Weeks of Thankfulness

      I was a frustrated three-year-old who wanted to read. The world was full of words and I had to know what they meant. I taught myself to by asking the closest adult (usually my mother)t o read me the words on the TV screen, the OTC remedy bottles on the toilet tank, the signs on the Pennsylvania Turnpike. Equipped with a vocabulary that included restaurant, constipation, and the most beautiful word in the English language, chocolate...I became a compulsive reader.

A little breakfast literature with Quick Draw McGraw.
I read everything. Cereal boxes. The contents of the mailbox; National Geographic, Look, LifeThe Sears & Roebuck Catalog. Little Golden Books at the supermarket check out. (I could get through at least one by the time the groceries were bagged.)
   An indiscriminate reader, you might say.

   I read for information. In kindergarten, my favorite book was Facts about the Presidents and Their Wives.  I can still recall endless, useless facts from this book.  Example:  Martin Van Buren's wife was named Hannah, and died before he took office.  James Buchanan's niece, Harriet Lane, served as the official White House hostess for our only bachelor president.  Calvin Coolidge's youngest son, Calvin Jr died at 16, from blood poisoning after playing tennis without socks, and developed an infected heel blister. (That scared me away from sockless tennis shoes for years.)

    I loved reading more than anything, but I hadn't yet found magic in words.  I read books the way I ate after another until someone told me to stop. Lots of Bobbsey Twins and Nancy Drews, an occasional Hardy Boys, but beyond them, I cannot recall a single title that made an impression on me.

    Until Christmas, third grade.

   Each Christmas, my dad scoured his favorite second-hand bookstore for a good, hardcover book for me. (Hardcover books! More precious than gold!) The year I was eight, Dad gave me The Book. The one that showed me words could be woven not only into stories, but could send you to an alternate universe. Words burnished into characters who made you laugh, cry or ponder months after you'd read the last chapter.

   The book was E.B. White's Charlotte's Web. 
E.B. White (photo by Jill Krementz)

   It was not love at first sight. Garth Williams' cover art made it clear this was a book about animals. After reading Old Yeller, I figured out that whatever the book, if there was an animal character, it would die. I couldn't stand dying dogs and deer caught in forest fires. My dad's childhood favorite, Toby Tyler, left me with a lifelong dislike of both chimpanzees and circuses. Don't even get me started on Black Beauty.

    I opened the book and read, "'Where is Papa going with that ax?' said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast."

   Who could put down a book with a first sentence like that? Before I knew it, Fern had saved a runt pig, named him Wilbur and eventually took him to his new home at her Uncle Homer Zuckerman's farm.  Poor Wilbur was lonely without Fern.  I knew how that felt. I was always the new kid at school. Would Wilbur make new friends? I was well into the story before I realized Wilbur talked, and so did his barn mates--sheep, geese, and a rat named Templeton. By the time I met Charlotte the spider, I was totally hooked.

    That sneaky Mr. E.B. White made me like a book with talking animals. Animals as human as my own classmates. (In some cases, more human.)
Third grade me

     I loved snarky Templeton, the rat. He was sneaky, underhanded, manipulative and utterly hilarious. The line "'What do you think I am, anyway, a rat-of-all-work?'" still makes me giggle. There was the wise and gentle Charlotte, who was a spider, for crying out loud. I loathed spiders but Charlotte was my first lesson in "things are not always what they appear to be." I adored the innocent and gullible Wilbur. Plus a whole Greek chorus of lambs, horses and geese.

   For the first time, I noticed the way the author used language to create scenes as vivid as a movie. He lovingly listed just what pig slops are:"Middlings, warm water, apple parings, meat gravy, carrot scrapings, meat scraps, stale hominy and the wrapper off a package of cheese."  To show the enormity of the crowds that came to see Charlotte's web, White catalogued every kind of vehicle you might find in rural 1950's New England. "...Fords and Chevvies and Buick roadsters and GMC pickups and Plymouths and Studebakers and Packards and DeSotos with gyromatic transmissions and Oldsmobiles with rocket engines and Jeep station wagons and Pontiacs."

     Up until now, description, those long, long paragraphs, unbroken by dialog, were something I skipped. Not now. I might miss the details of Templeton's night of culinary debauchery at the State Fair.

   But Mr. E.B. White was not finished with me.  One grisly January day, I sat in an overheated, overcrowded allergist's office, waiting for my weekly allergy shots, Charlotte's Web in hand. Unlike my usual habit of tearing through books in a couple of hours, I had taken my time with Charlotte, savoring every character, description and turn of plot. I was at the most exciting part, where Wilbur, Charlotte and Templeton go to the State Fair. The sniveling, sneezing kids, stuffed into smelly nylon parkas, receded. I smelled the gamey sawdust of the Fair barns, heard the screams from the Midway rides, and best of all, Wilbur winning the blue ribbon. Could this get any better?

   No. Because in the next pages, Charlotte tells Wilbur and Templeton the plans for her death.

   What? I re-read the previous chapter to see if I had skipped a page, a paragraph, a sentence that would explain that Charlotte was kidding, or that her death was far in the future.

    I had forgotten the lessons of Old Yeller and Toby Tyler.  

    "Next day, as the Ferris wheel was being taken apart and the race horses were being loaded into vans...Charlotte died. The sheds and buildings were empty and forlorn. The infields was littered with bottles and trash. Nobody, of the hundreds of people that had visited the Fair, knew that a grey spider had played the most important part of all. No one was with her when she died.

     Mr. E.B. White had committed the ultimate sin.  He made me do something no other book had done before.  Not Old Yeller, not Toby Tyler.

     He made me love a character who died. He made me cry. In public, in front of strangers. In an allergist's office, for crying out loud! (which I was.)

     I had discovered that the best of writers, plump, prune and position each word just so. The result?, An imaginary world, more immediate and alive than "real life." That's the kind of writer I wanted to be.

     I'm still trying.

     Update: Jane H is the winner of our latest Book Giveaway, Toby by Hazel Mitchell.

     Don't forget to enter our latest giveaway, our latest book giveaway, for Bjorn's Gift by Sandy Brehl. Deadline is Nov 30, so get that entry in before you are distracted by Turkey Day.

Posted by Mary Ann Rodman


  1. Thank you for sharing your love of E. B. White, MaryAnn, and how he impacted your life.
    I just finished reading Melissa Sweet's SOME WRITER! - which is Newbery-worthy.
    Here's the quote on the back cover: "I feel that a writer has an obligation to transmit, as best he can, his love of life, his appreciation for the world."
    He clearly did an A-#1 job transmitting that love to YOU!

  2. Mary Ann, this is a great post. You made me want go back and reread Charlotte's Web. Thank you for your insight into this awesome book.

  3. Mary Ann, this is a great post. You made me want to go back and reread Charlotte's Web. Thank you for your insight into this awesome book.

  4. Thank you, Esther and Sherri. I had just finished reading SOME WRITER! (which I'd been looking forward to for months.) and realized that White was the first author to make realize that writing is more than getting a story from point A to Point B. (Well, he did co-write THE ELEMENTS OF STYLE.) Sherri, I re-read CHARLOTTE every spring (or any time I just want to escape for a couple of hours.) It was wondrous when I was 8, and genius in every way at my currently advanced age.

  5. Terrific post, MA! (And I loved seeing your third grade photo.) I didn't discover CHARLOTTE'S WEB until I was an adult, and even then it made me cry.


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