"Style is even more important in children's books than in those for adults,” said the New York Times reviewer of Stuart Little, E.B. White's first book for children, in 1954. White -- an essayist whose elegant, deceptively simple writings for Harper's and The New Yorker had garnered him national acclaim -- may have seemed an unlikely children’s book author, but Stuart Little proved that good writing (and style) could translate to any genre, even to books for readers too young to enjoy his Talk of the Town pieces.
White had in fact been writing ever since he was a child, growing up in the "leafy suburbs" of Mount Vernon, New York. "I fell in love with the sound of an early typewriter and have been stuck with it ever since," he said later. After graduating from Cornell University in 1921, he tried to turn his facility with words into some form of gainful employment, but found advertising too dull and news reporting too taxing. Finally the Seattle Times asked him to create a small daily column of brief anecdotes and light verse, and White joined Mark Twain in the pantheon of American newspaper humorists.
In 1926, a fledgling publication called The New Yorker offered him a job on its staff. There, he helped create the signature style of clear, elegant writing with which the magazine would thereafter be associated. In New York he befriended writers like James Thurber and Dorothy Parker, and met the woman who was to become his wife, the literary editor Katharine Sergeant Angell.
White's second literary career, as a writer of children's books, had its origins in a dream of a little boy like a mouse, "all complete, with his hat, his cane, and his brisk manner." He began to make up stories about this dapper character to please his nephews and nieces, and eventually organized the Stuart Little stories into a book, which was published to high acclaim in 1945, and made into a feature film in 1999.
The barn of White's farmhouse in Maine provided the inspiration for a second children's book, Charlotte's Web (1952). This fable about a heroic spider and her efforts to save a pig from slaughter was even more successful than Stuart Little. "As a piece of work it is just about perfect," wrote Eudora Welty in The New York Times, and millions of readers agreed. Charlotte's Web was still high on the bestseller lists in 1970, when it was joined by White's third and final book for children, The Trumpet of the Swan.
White produced another bestseller in 1959, when he revised and expanded a little handbook of grammar and usage written by his late teacher at Cornell, William Strunk, Jr. Now familiar to generations of college students as Strunk and White's The Elements of Style, the book made a wise and witty case for what White called "clearness, accuracy and brevity in the use of English."
White's assessment of his own writing was a characteristic mix of humility and grandeur: "All that I ever hope to say in books is that I love the world. I guess you can find that in there, if you dig around."
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Galleys of Stuart Little were sent to Anne Carroll Moore, who was head of children's books at the New York Public Library. Moore hated it. "To her it was nonaffirmative, inconclusive, unfit for children, and she felt it would harm its author if published," said White's editor, Ursula Nordstrom. She fired off a letter to White’s wife, and then made her case to Nordstrom -- who went ahead and published anyway.
After Stuart Little was released, White received a great deal of praise for the book, as well as some unusual criticism: "Then three fellows turned up claiming that their name was Stuart Little, and what was I going to do about that?" he wrote. "One of them told me he had begun work on a children's story: The hero was a rat and the rat's name was E. B. White."
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