Posted by: jeannineatkins | January 29, 2014

The Beginnings of Two Books: FLORA AND ULYSSES and CHARLOTTE’S WEB

When I began writing for children, I was pretty vague about the possible prizes. I knew some books had shiny stickers, but not that every January carefully-chosen groups of librarians gathered in secret to choose the year’s most distinguished novel for children. More recently, I learn on facebook the day when the Newbery and other ALA awards will be chosen, and go back there as friends report the prizes as they’re announced. Hearing that Kate DiCamillo won the Newbery for FLORA AND ULYSSES, I headed to my local library just after it opened. I remembered seeing the book on display, and could snatch it before requests started flowing in.

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I also read an interview and learned about how Kate started the novel after seeing a dead squirrel on the sidewalk and, frequently, a vacuum cleaner that had ended up in her garage, still ridden with cat hair, to which she’s allergic, after her mother died. I see these on the first pages, though the squirrel remains alive, and soon will be writing poetry, after a hazardous encounter with a rambunctious vacuum cleaner. Kate DiCamillo also mentioned that she was inspired by reading E.B. White’s essay, “The Death of a Pig,” which led to the novel that won a Newbury Honor in 1952.

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I’ll get back to her novel, but turned to CHARLOTTE’S WEB, which my UMass class was just about to adore and gently pick apart, as is our English Department duty. A student remarked on how Charlotte was a writer not only as she drew silk to form the letters in her web, but through her whole way of being: taking time to muse and reflect, moving between single words, each weighed, and her larger goal. She sometimes seemed to others not to be doing much as she sat high in the beams of the barn, where she had such a good view, but she was. It’s just the third day of class, but I already adore my students.

Critics have mentioned how E.B. White’s three books for children all circle around a character with something that makes him not quite fit in: Wilbur is a runt who’s almost killed for that, Stuart Little is a two-inch-tall boy who looks like a mouse, and Louis is a trumpeter swan who can’t speak. They’re all boys, but from what we know about E.B. White, he was more like Charlotte and Fern Arable when she sat on a stool in the barn and listened to the animals then he was like anyone else in the book. As a shy boy, he was at happiest sitting silently among soft-breathing horses in a stable, and while he worked in New York City as a young man, he was glad to buy a farm in Maine and settle there. He didn’t like crowds and kept a distance from awards, which he spoofs in this novel. At his funeral, his stepson said, “If Andy could have been here, he wouldn’t have been here.”

E.B. White took his time, saying that he started STUART LITTLE for his six year old niece, finishing it up when she was in college and reading Hemingway. The quiet places where he found inspiration, and a kind of holiness. He said, “When you enter a barn cellar, raise your hat.” And he gave us that barn where a true friendship is made and a writer does her life’s work.

Kate DiCamillo said that after getting the early morning phone call with librarians on speaker phones telling her that the novel she wrote had won the Newbery Award, she didn’t know what else to do, so she sat down and wrote. I think E.B. White would like that.

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Responses

  1. Beautiful post, Jeannine. Love your thoughtful musings about E.B. White and how Kate started Flora and Ulysses. Great story about Stuart Little taking years to write.

    • Thanks, Jama. The Annotated Charlotte’s Web shows (along with some interesting spider studies) glimpses of the eight early drafts written in about as many years. He took his time. He got it right.

  2. I love E.B. White. Always strikes me as quintessential New England philosophy. My favorite E.B. quote is: Writing is an act of faith, not a trick of grammar.

    • So glad we share a love of E.B. White. That’s an excellent quote. Of course there are so many, of various tones, to choose from. I think if I had to choose I’d go with: “All that I hope to say in books, all that I ever hope to say, is that I love the world.” That just makes me happy, and what an aspiration!

  3. So lovely, Jeannine. Thank you for paying homage to a fine man and writer. Though E.B. White won a Newbery Honor for Charlotte’s Web in 1953, I would award him the highest, widest, and deepest longevity award for his work. I would imagine fewer read Ann Nolan Clark’s Secret of the Andes, the Newbery winner that same year.

    • Yes, there he is: a true friend and a good writer. I think we’d all nudge him over the fence into the highest honor, but the humble person he was may have been content. And leeriness of crowds and acclaim. He might have felt like Mrs. Zuckerman who said she was scared to death with all the crowds looking at them before Wilbur got his prize. Mrs. Arable said, “Cheer up. This is fun.” Did someone say that to him?

      I miss you, Sarah! When it stops being so Arctic-y, let’s make a plan!

  4. I recently read The Story of Charlotte’s Web by Michael Sims and loved hearing so much about E.B. White’s years spent as you say, in the barns of his life. This is lovely to weave his work in and out of Kate DiCamillo’s story of her own “story”-which I enjoyed thoroughly, but in a different way from Charlotte’s Web. She has a different imagination for fantasy. Thanks Jeannine!

    • Linda, I loved that slim biography! My husband brought it home, and I stayed away for a bit, but the watchful photographed on the cover was perfect, for I loved the focus on that child, and there seemed just enough of the adult. Plus Sims’s gentle tone seemed White-like and just the thing. I look forward to finishing up FLORA AND ULYSSES THIS WEEKEND. And agree. Some might call CHARLOTTE’S WEB fantasy as the animals do talk, but in my mind I file it as realism.

  5. Lovely post, as always. And can I just say I also love your students for making that point about Charlotte and how she carefully weighed each silken word?

    • The insights of students make me feel like I’m floating. So, thanks, Tracy, and yes you may float, too!

  6. I love the way you connected these two writers and the reverent way in which they approached their writing lives. How lucky those students are to have you, Jeannine – ah, to be in college again!!!

    • Those novels are very different, perhaps most linked in that they both have illustrations that are gorgeous in themselves and amplify the themes, but reading about how Kate approaches writing, I feel she has much in common with the thoughtful and caring approach White also developed, and this moves me.


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