A Boy, a Mouse, and a Spider: The Story of E.B. White

Book review by
Jan Carr, Common Sense Media
A Boy, a Mouse, and a Spider: The Story of E.B. White Book Poster Image
Gentle bio of "Charlotte's Web" author is full of charm.

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this book.

Educational Value

Titles of E.B. White books Stuart Little, Charlotte’s Web, and The Trumpet of the Swan. Story shows Elwyn keeping a journal as a child, plus path of becoming a writer. Mention of The New Yorker magazine and Cornell University. Period details like typewriter and sailor suit in text and art. Elevated vocabulary in context: dusty expeditions, musky inspections, comrade, refuge, raucousness, instincts, stoic, dapper, etc. Author's note includes reference to writing guide The Elements of Style and its author, William Strunk Jr.

Positive Messages

"His stories capture the glory of nature and the comfort of hope." The natural world is rich, inspiring, and full of sensory pleasure. Do what gives you joy. Writing poems and recording observations in a journal is deeply satisfying. Imagination is worth cultivating. You can use your own life and experiences to make up your own stories.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Though shy, Elwyn was highly observant, and connected to animals and the natural world. He loved to write poems and write in his journal. He followed his interests at Cornell, where he became editor-in-chief of the college newspaper. After graduation, he got a job at The New Yorker. He created characters and stories out of his experience, ideas, and dreams. He became a writer by doing the thing that "filled him with joy."

Violence & Scariness
Language

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that A Boy, a Mouse, and a Spider: The Story of E.B. White, by Barbara Herkert, is a picture book biography worthy of its esteemed subject, E.B. White, who wrote Charlotte's Web and other classics. Illustrator Lauren Castillo won a Caldecott Honor for her book Nana in the City, and author Herkert has written other biographies for young readers, including one about artist Mary Cassatt. She includes a three-page author's note to provide more information. Kids don't have to be familiar with E.B. White's books to enjoy this one, since it can work more generally as a thoughtful tale of how a young, observant boy grew up to be a writer. But one fun activity -- pleasurable for parents and kids alike -- would be to pair this bio with nightly chapter-by-chapter read-alouds of Charlotte's Web and Stuart Little.

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What's the story?

A BOY, A MOUSE, AND A SPIDER: THE STORY OF E.B. WHITE traces the journey shy Elwyn White takes to become much-loved author E.B. White. When young, Elwyn befriended a mouse and felt most at home with the animals in the barn. Though he didn't like kindergarten, he loved observing his animal friends and the natural world, and enjoyed writing down his thoughts about them. In college, he edited the school newspaper and began making up tales about a little mouse named Stuart. Though he moved to New York City and got a job writing at the prestigious magazine The New Yorker, he missed the countryside and moved his family to Maine. There, he continued to write and observe, turning his mouse stories into Stuart Little, and his barn friends into the characters in Charlotte's Web.

Is it any good?

This gentle biography of beloved children's book author E.B. White reads more like a sweet story than dry reportage and drives home the message that shy, observant kids can grow up to create great art. In A Boy, a Mouse, and a Spider: The Story of E.B. White, author Barbara Herkert takes a subtle approach and never bombards readers with facts; those can be found in the three-page author's note at back. Her text also has quiet echoes of E.B. White's style. Where White used lists to evoke the sensory pleasures of a barn -- "the nearness of rats, the sameness of sheep, the love of spiders, the smell of manure ..." -- Herkert inserts similar lists throughout, such as "the ripe scent of manure, the creak of harness leather, the perfect shape of eggs, the snort of tired horses ..."

Lauren Castillo's textured illustrations echo the homespun warmth of the original art of Garth Williams (Charlotte's Web, Stuart Little). Though here, instead of seeing young Fern in the barn visiting her animal friends, she sets Elwyn on the three-legged stool, underscoring the point that White had many of the same experiences he later gave his characters. The text and art together feel hushed, celebrating life's quiet spaces. And since the book directly poses the question "I wonder what I might be?" kids can be inspired when Elwyn realizes: "Writing filled him with joy. This is where I belong."

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about the examples in A Boy, a Mouse, and a Spider: The Story of E.B. White of how E.B. White got and developed his ideas. When he wrote his stories, how did he use his own experiences? Can you think of ways he changed his experiences to turn them into fiction?

  • When young Elwyn wrote in his journal, he felt joy and thought, "This is where I belong." What fills you with joy? What makes you feel you belong? Do you think that provides clues to the kind of work you'd like to do when you get older?

  • How can you tell that E.B. White grew up in a different time? What details are there in the story and art that show how life was different then?

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