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A love of creatures big and small inspired much of the work of E.B. White, whose life is detailed in The Story of Charlotte’s Web.

E.B. White didn’t actually go by E.B., the name that graces his book covers. As a child, he was Elwyn. As an adult, Andy.

In The Story of Charlotte’s Web: E. B. White’s Eccentric Life in Nature and the Birth of an American Classic, author Michael Sims looks into the person who was Elwyn, then Andy, and how experience on both sides of the name divide (White changed how people addressed him when he went to college at Cornell University) created E.B., the man responsible for penning Charlotte’s Web and Stuart Little.

White’s love of animals — which frequently turned up in his literary work — came from his upbringing on a farm in Mount Vernon, N.Y., at the turn of the century. But as Sims recounts, White never lost his love of nature or his fascination with living creatures even after he moved to Manhattan and began working at The New Yorker, which was then just an upstart. While White was pushing The New Yorker into the apex of American magazines, he still tended to his farm in Maine, which he bought after marrying fellow editor Katharine Sergeant Angell White. It was there that he was struck by the webwork of a spider that would inspire one of his most indelible characters. White was so taken with arachnids, in fact, that for one extended trip back to New York, he brought an unhatched spider-egg sac from the barn with him and let it hatch in his bedroom. (He cleared the spiders out only after a maid complained.)

The Story of Charlotte’s Web never strays into literary criticism. Instead, Sims builds a rich, touching tale about a man whose work is universally loved. By writing about White’s influences and fears (especially those of attention and crowds), Sims has created an endearing, funny and fascinating look into the life and mind of a man who never wrote down to children, and whose legacy lives on because of it.