E.B. White wrote three of the finest works of literature ever produced in the English language. That they were directed at young people only heightens the achievement since children's book authors rarely get their due. In fact, it could be said that he put children's literature on the map as a genre in its own right.
He certainly opened up the world of reading for many a young imagination. Including mine...
Elwyn Brooks White was born on July 11, 1899, in Mount Vernon, New York, USA. He started writing at the age of seven or eight when he fell in love with the sound of an early typewriter. That’s also when he first stared a sheet of blank paper, “square in the eyes.” It dared him to fill it up, so he did.
He would go on staring down blank pages throughout his lifetime, all the while challenging himself to write with ever-increasing clarity and economy. E.B. White believed in using only as many words as necessary. “The hope I see for the world…is to simplify life,” E.B. once said. He modeled this hope in his writing.
Although he grew up in New York City, E.B. found solace in nature. He loved lakes and paddling around them in a canoe. He loved animals and could spend hours watching a spider spinning a web. He found that focusing on “the trivial matters of the heart” was the key to writing with the most sincerity and grace. Simple everyday miracles would become the subjects of his most famous works. But they would have to wait. First, he had to complete his studies; then, he had to figure out how to make a living.
After graduating from Cornell University in 1921, E.B. White followed the example of most writers of his era: he went into journalism. But he hated being told what to write. So he tried out advertising and wrote poems and squibs at night, which he submitted to journals and magazines. But this didn’t pay very well and ate up all his free time. Finally, a friend told him about a literary start-up – called The New Yorker – that was looking for writers willing to work for little pay, at least to start. E.B. longed to write from his own point of view about whatever he wanted. So he joined the new magazine as a “short writer": he composed captions for cartoons; tapped out articles, called “Comments,” on current events; and created the “Newsbreak,” in which he poked fun at grammatical errors and typos committed by other magazines and newspapers.
E.B.'s sharp, witty, and at times sardonic prose drew readers right in. This is where he learned to unpack the English language and how to pack a punch with very few words. He would stay with The New Yorker magazine for nearly five decades, the whole of his career, helping it to become one of the preeminent literary journals in the United States. It’s also where he would meet the people of most importance in his life, including his future wife, Katharine Sergeant Angell.
One night in the spring of 1926, while sleeping on a train, E.B. dreamt of a tiny mouse-like boy. He pictured him dressed in a dapper outfit, including cap and cane, and having adventures on the streets of New York City with his human family. He wrote the dream down, over time crafting it into a tale. He named his tiny character Stuart. When one of his 18 nieces and nephews wanted a story, he’d pull it out of a drawer and read it out loud, adding episodes and making improvements with each reading.
In the 1930s, Katharine began reviewing children’s books for The New Yorker. Books poured into their house. Out of curiosity, E.B. read them too. He was shocked to find all of them “dull” save one: The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins, by Dr. Seuss. He penned an essay, this time for Harper’s magazine, stating that writing for children was perhaps the most “important work.” The essay caught the eye of the children’s librarian at the New York Public Library. She urged him to make the “library lions roar with their praise.” So he pulled out the mouse story he had tucked away over a decade before and gave writing for children a go.
It was another six years, however, before Stuart Little was published. World War II got in the way. In addition, E.B. insisted that his first children’s book be right. “I would rather wait…than publish a bad book, as I have too much respect for children,” he wrote.
When Stuart Little launched in 1945, many adults panned it – how human parents could give birth to a mouse? they wondered. But both kids and lions roared. “Children can sail easily over the fence that separates reality from make-believe,” wrote E.B. A true classic, Stuart Little remains available and in print today.
It would be another seven years (1952) before E.B.'s second children’s book launched. Another idea allowed to "ripen," he came up with Charlotte's Web in the late 1930s while at his family farm in Maine. Watching a spider spinning her egg sac on the wall of a barn, he became entranced by the intricate beauty of her work and of her web. That little act of observation planted a seed that grew and grew into one of the greatest children's books of all time, although White once stated he had as much trouble getting it off the ground as the as the Wright Brothers did with Kitty Hawk. The book was an immediate success and is still read by children today. By 2006, it had been translated into 23 languages, and sold more than 45 million copies worldwide.
“What the book is about is friendship on earth, affection and protection, adventure and miracle life and death, trust and treachery, pleasure and pain, and the passing of time… What it all proves… is that human beings must always be on the watch for the coming of wonders… As a piece of work it is just about perfect.”
- Eudora Welty
E.B. White continued to produce essays, poems, and writing guides for adult audiences, including his re-edition of the famous Elements of Style, by William Strunk, Jr., typically referred to as "Strunk & White." He is most remembered, however, as one of history’s greatest children’s authors, standing beside Dr. Seuss as a pioneer of the genre. In 1970, his third and final children's book, The Trumpet of the Swan came out, also to raves reviews. While Charlotte's was a story of friendship, life, death, and salvation, and Stuart's a story of the quest for beauty, this was a love story between a husband and wife and between fathers and sons. As E.B.'s wife, Katharine, was dying when he wrote it, and he himself faced advancing age, it is perhaps his most autobiographical book of all. Yet, it still manages to speak to and touch the hearts of the young.
In 1971, E.B. White received the Laura Ingalls Wilder Medal for children's literature as well as the National Medal for Literature for the totality of his work. White's beautifully crafted stories and precise, economical writing style elevated children's literature, massively influencing the genre we know and love today.
E.B. White wasn't just a great children's writer, he was a brilliant writer, full-stop. It is thanks to him that I am an avid reader and full-time writer today. My yellowed, dog-eared copy of his Elements of Style is never too far away. Like another of my favorite children's authors, Kate diCamillo, what fascinates and challenges me about E.B. White is how he manages to make words matter: "It is as if he is able to make one word do the work of ten." The quintessential wordsmith, he is Some Writer and Some Teacher, too. And that's why he's a Time Traveler Tours #HistoryHero. Many thanks to me, Sarah Towle, for nominating him.