E. B. White (1899 – 1985)
When and where born: Elwyn Brooks White (nicknamed “Andy”) was born in New York into the family of a well-to-do piano-manufacturer. He was the youngest of six children, three boys and three girls.
Childhood: Although his parents were loving and kind, Andy was always frightened as a child. He was afraid of the dark, of the future, of going back to school after the holidays, of speaking in front of people and even of not knowing the things he felt he ought to know! The family lived a quiet and self-contained life in a world to themselves, and no one ever came to dinner.
School days: Andy attended local public schools, but was so nervous about making presentations that he would write them and get someone else to read them out! He loved reading books about animals and about boat voyages, and was always writing – in fact, he said that he began writing as soon as he knew how to spell!
How he became a writer: After leaving school, Andy went to Cornell University where he took a Bachelor of Arts degree and edited the college newspaper. He was offered a job as a teacher at the University as soon as he completed his degree, but refused it because he wanted to become a writer. After travelling to the West coast, he took his first job as a reporter on the Seattle Times. He then worked for an advertising agency but at the age of 25, returned to New York, and began submitting articles to the New Yorker magazine (which had just been founded and was later to become one of the most prestigious magazines in America). The magazine liked his articles so much that he became a staff writer, and the literary editor Katharine Angell liked him so much that she married him!
For most of his life, EB White wrote for adults – everything from magazine articles to books of poetry and essays, to a very famous book on writing style which became a standard text in schools and colleges for many years. But in the late 1930s, when he was about forty years old, he began writing stories for his nieces and nephews. His first children’s book, published in 1945, was Stuart Little, about a mouse born into a human family and his adventures in the local neighbourhood. It wasn’t noticed much at first, but after he published his second book, Charlotte’s Web, in 1952, both books became a great success and indeed in 1970, Andy was awarded the famous Laura Ingalls Wilder Medal for both books! His other famous children’s book The Trumpet of the Swan also won many awards. If you want to read more about Charlotte’s Web, go to my Brilliant Books page right away!
EB White’s writing – for adults and children – was so highly regarded that in 1978 he won an honorary Pulitzer Prize for his work as a whole.
After more than six decades of constant writing, he died on his farm in Maine at the ripe old age of 85. He was survived by his son, a stepson and three grandchildren.
- EB White was so shy all his life that he never visited schools and rarely answered his fanmail!
- He always said that he found writing really difficult and bad for his mood! But he kept at it anyway!
- He got the idea for Stuart Little when he fell asleep one day in a railway sleeper car, and dreamed of a tiny boy who acted like a mouse.
- He said that he wrote Stuart Little to console young kids who thought they were different or a bit odd. Stuart’s parents didn’t mind a bit that he was a mouse, and he became a hero with a great life anyway!
- The inspiration for Charlotte’s Web was the farm that he and his wife bought in Maine, New Jersey. He loved spending time in the barn. One day, he started feeling very sorry for the pig he was feeding, because it was doomed to be slaughtered. So he started thinking of ways to save it. At the same time, he had been watching a big grey spider weave a web in the barn, and was very impressed by how clever it was. So he brought the idea of a wise spider and a courageous little pig together into a story.
- He did most of his writing sitting on a wooden bench in a boathouse, right by the water’s edge.
- On his farm he kept a barn full of sheep, a coop full of chickens and a dog named Jones!
” I don’t know what caused me to (write as a child)…but I think children often find pleasure and satisfaction in trying to set their thoughts down on paper, either in words or in pictures. I was no good at drawing, so I used words instead.”
“Children are demanding. They are the most attentive, curious, eager, observant, sensitive, quick and generally congenial readers on earth.”
“Some writers for children deliberately avoid using words they think a child doesn’t know. This emasculates the prose and, I suspect, bores the reader. Children are game for anything. I throw them hard words, and they backhand them over the net. They love words that give them a hard time, provided thay are in a context that absorbs their attention” Now that’s something Sarah Brennan totally agrees with!
” I revise (edit) a great deal. I know when something is right because bells begin ringing and lights flash”.
“Genius is more often found in a cracked pot than a whole one.”
“I have a tremendous respect for anyone who does something extremely well, no matter what. I would rather watch a really gifted plumber than listen to a bad poet.”
- www.harpercollinschildren.com/HarperChildrens/kids/AuthorsAndIllustrators/AuthorNote.aspx?CId=1049 contains a very interesting letter from EB White to children generally
- www.notablebiographies.com/We-Z/White-E-B.html has a good life summary
- www.theparisreview.org/interviews/4155/the-art-of-the-essay-no-1-e-b-white has a wonderful interview with EB White about writing for adults and children.