THE STORY OF CHARLOTTE’S WEB by Michael Sims : A Review

This was a post made previously on PWR. Because it is Christmas and the time for giving–BOOKS–to children and grandchildren, this book emphasizes the importance and significance Of E.B. White’s life and contribution to children’s literature and word-smithing, in general.  ‘There are more recent biographies of E.B White, even a children’s version, but this one is the most complete. It includes the detailed story of how the children’s classic, Charlotte’s Web came to be written and published.  All the information came from huge research into the primary sources of White’s letters, trips and  to his childhood home, and interviews with many other researchers into the life and works of this wonderful man.

The details of White’s boyhood are fascinating and foreshadow many of the things that appear in Charlotte’s Web, but for me, when I hit the middle of the book, things got very interesting.  As a long time subscriber to the New Yorker magazine an  aficionado of all things journalistic, I could hardly put down the book’s description of White’s earliest publishing jobs, his romance and marriage to a famous New Yorker editor and the publication of his earliest columns.

The author knows his subject and it became apparent to me that only E.B. White and his experiences in life could have written Charlotte’s Web. The book was a wonderful read, a complete and encompassing exploration of all things E.B. White.”



In a box of books donated to my Little Free Library, I found and read You Have a Girlfriend, Alfie Atkins? by Gunilla Bergstrom, which was published back in 1988. I hope it was a young boy who owned this book, and his parent or grandparent donated it, for the “lesson” that Alfie, the protagonist learns is one young boys everywhere should learn. Friendships with girls are not “unmanly” and something to be avoided at all costs, but certain girls like Milly, Alfie’s friend are “not exactly a girl.” When the other boys tease Alfie for playing with Milly, and even write “Alfie loves Milly ” on the bathroom wall for the whole school to read, these same boys end up envious of Alfie and Milly’s tree fort which has many ingenious features and inventions thought up by Milly.

My favorite parts are the pages with the illustrations of how girls are, and how Milly is NOT like a girl, and then the page where Alfie lists how Milly IS like a boy:

” Milly almost never cries./ She invents things./ Right now she is making a mailbox, with a rope pulley for the fort./ (Milly never tells anyone about the fort. She knows how to keep a secret.)/ Everyone says that Milly is a REDHEAD./ Alfie doesn’t think so. / Her hair isn’t red; it sparkles like gold–at least when the sun is shining./ And she even wears a heart of gold around her neck!/ Milly is a good friend because she knows…

How to make candy and bake cakes…and build a toy circus…and do a handstand on one hand. She’s not afraid of jumping off the garage roof, and she can make really disgusting faces. Look!

Now she is working on a bell for the mailbox. It will ring when you pick up the mail. You can find out things from Milly. You can learn things from her.”

These quoted passages are included in five of the most wonderfully illustrated pages of Alfie and Milly’s adventures (and “things that girls, in general, do” and “the boys” Alfie is friends with), but I could not find the illustrator’s name anywhere! I must assume that he/she is an illustrator with R&S Books. The book is originally a Swedish book and is distributed in the US by FArrar, Straus and Giroux, N.Y and in the UK by Ragged Bears, Andover; in Canada by General Publishing, Toronto; and in Australia by ERA Publications, Adelaide.

It is a book every boy should read!



Today’s Saturday morning selection, Is That A Sick Cat in Your Backpack? is by Todd Strasser.  It is the second book in “The Tardy Boys Series” (No, that is not a typo.) published in 2007. The target audience for the book is ages 7-10, according to the author’s hilarious “Author’s Note and Warning.” Strasser explains that “Tardy Boys” is a two book series, the first book titled, Is That A Dead Dog in Your Locker?  He allows kids to read Sick Cat as a stand-alone, reminding them that he, “the author,” at the end of book one, mentions “The Meowians from the Planet Meow in the Feline Galaxy.” He goes on to tell readers, “The Meowians have changed their name and the name of their planet.”

The cover is the biggest hook of the book.  One of the boys is holding a scarf over his nose as “fumes” of smell arise from his school backpack. Greg Swinson, responsible for the cover art is amazing. The book opens with “The Missing Cat Mystery,” written in the form of a memo from” Commander Claw on Planet Hiss in the Feline Galaxy,” and the zanyness goes on from there. We meet The Tardy Boys: T.J., Wade and Leyton, coming home from a party.  The mystery builds raucously as a skinny, foul smelling, raggedy cat is delivered at night by a weird “person?” and becomes the source of their woe.  Other characters like Fibby Mandible and Barton Slugg make the boys’ lives miserable throughout the book.

I laughed until I gagged; I reached for the air freshener at times, and continued on.  It will delight seven to ten year old boys everywhere. If they read it with a friend, they will punch each other and giggle madly at the second adventure of The Tardy Boys.


Since I once was a very young reader, I am offering a Saturday morning post that might help children and younger young adults (and especially parents and grandparents of the same) find some really good reads. Today I have picked two books that function as read-alouds or read-alones.

The first, I encountered volunteering at a primary school (ages 4 yrs. to second grade) in Alvin, Texas. When I read the title aloud and offered the cover with, yes, a pig high in the treetops, the first graders I was with broke out in “silly giggles.”Then I found a discarded library copy (Does anyone know where the Koennecke Library is?) in a box of books I bought at a garage sale in my neighborhood. Do Pigs Sit in Trees? is written by Jean Zelasney and illustrated by Mr. Stobbs. (There’s bound to be a story behind that pseudonym!) In the children’s literary tradition there is often a young animal looking for his/her mother. Various animals suggest to little Quinton, a piglet, where his mother might have gone.  All Quinton knows is his mother is nowhere to be seen, and he’s hungry! After searching around the farmyard and forming laugh-out-loud images of his mother in ridiculous places, he finally finds her in the cornfield’s mud with all his brothers and sisters happily munching away. The anxiety of the piglet and the satisfactory drawing of the family snuggle at the end make delightful reading and a jumping off place for kids to discuss with Mom/Dad/Grandma/Grandad the times they have felt anxious.

All kids seem to like dinosaurs, and Dinosaur Poems by Jack Prelutsky and illustrated by Arnold Lobel is a wonderful book for the “read-to-me-Mommy” demand from a little one. Since T-Rex seems to be hands-down the favorite, his poem comes first:

“Tyrannosaurus Rex was a beast

that had no friends to say the least.

It ruled the ancient out-of-doors.

and slaughtered other dinosaurs.”


Other types of dinosaurs are treated equally humorously, but let me skip to the last–Seismosaurus.

“Seismosaurus was enormous,

Seismosaurus was tremendous,

Seismosaurus was prodigious,

Seismosaurus was stupendous.

Seismosaurus was titanic,

Seismosaurus was colossal,

Seismosaurus now is nothing

but a monumental fossil.”


And so goes life….I predict giggles and the learning of and love for big words out of this one.



Today’s book is an older book, published in 1996, by the renowned children’s writer, Patricia Polacco. Aunt Chip and the Triple Creek Dam Affair, deals with modern issues like time management, public apathy, and conformity.  As the story opens, nothing is happening in Triple Creek because its population does nothing but watch TV. This town is so addicted to TV that often a picture of a family’s TV set appears on the fireplace mantel along with pictures of family members. Young Eli’s Aunt Charlotte is the only objector to this takeover; she is so upset that she “takes to her bed” and refuses to get out of it. Eli visits her often and one day asks her where the stories she tells him during his visits came from. Her reply, “books,” reveals the fact that Eli and the other townspeople have lost the art of reading and are only using books to prop up wobbly table legs, use as a doorstop, sit upon, and other reasons. NO ONE can read a book, for they are too busy watching TV. Even the public library has been closed for years. After Aunt Charlotte teaches Eli to read and use books for their proper function: relay stories, take readers to far-off lands or other times, entertain, distribute information, teach skills and more; Eli reads to the other children, who are enchanted and begin reading themselves.  Aunt Charlotte lends her books to them, and when those run out, the children attack a huge pile of stacked up books outside the library. “If’n we were meant to read, there surely would have been a sign,” the town soothsayer says, At that moment, all the TV’s went dead because the dam that had provided electricity blew apart, sending books high in the air and falling to earth again. It looked like it was raining books! The townspeople were amazed and agreed it was “surely a sign.” Children taught parents to read, and pretty soon the whole town was reading.  Nobody even noticed when the TV’s came back on–they were too busy reading!

Polacco’s book is categorized as a “contemporary fantasy,” and is the perfect read for “anyone who believes in the power of books.”


I have had the pleasure of reading several kid’s books this past week.  I like to preview the books I add to my Little Free Library, and I find that a quick read of a good children’s or YA book will take my mind off from whatever is going on in my life at the time. A book that I found especially appealing is The Burning Questions of Bingo Brown by Betsy Byars, an author my sixth graders often gravitated to. This book is not “the very latest fad in adolescent books,” but its timely life lessons hold true, and because I found neighborhood kids had “donated” it to the LFL, I knew it was still being read years after its publication date.

Bingo Brown is the typical middle school boy. The “Burning Questions” he asks as he makes his way through the treacherous labyrinth of middle school relationships and complexities are still very relevant, and the answers he “discovers” are helpful to young boys encountering for the first time feelings about girls, teachers, and facing one’s future. What is admirable is the way Byars gives solid answers that are specific … and work. For example, Bingo holds hands with a girl for the first time. It is the first time he has ever wanted to, and a burning question pops up, “When and how do you stop holding hands with a girl”? The answer he comes up with is, “When your hands got sweaty. It was simple really.” Bingo reminds me of a neighbor I often converse with as he passes my LFL in the mornings on his way to the bus stop, whom I first met when he was  a fifth grader at the elementary school down the street. When he “graduated” to junior high this fall, I happened to be refreshing the library as he came home from his second day of junior high.  When I asked him how junior high was, he said, “It sure is different from fifth grade…it’s so confusing.” He went on to describe how his relationships with friends, especially girls who were friends had changed over the summer. In the conversation, he often repeated “I just don’t get it…it’s so confusing.” He went on to say, “Even the classes are confusing.” He described how his Language Arts teacher was pointing out that geo meant earth and therm meant heat; thus, geothermal energy was formed by the heat or the earth.” He complained in an agonized tone, “That’s not Language Arts; it’s science.  I just don’t get it…it’s so confusing!”


Today I am starting a new type post. Saturday Morning for Kids will be book reviews and miscellaneous thoughts aimed at the younger set.  When I was a kid, Saturday morning TV was reserved for kids only. Showtimes began at 6:30 a.m. and ran through 11:00 or 12:00 noon, depending on the network.  While kids were safely occupied with cartoons, Mom and Dad could safely sleep in a few extra hours if they wished.  Older kids poured cereal and milk into younger siblings’ bowls, and we munched in time with the musical backgrounds of cartoons like Looney Tunes.  Who knew we were getting an education on classical music!

Today’s review will be of The King of Show and Tell, a book in the Ready Freddy series written by Abby Klein and illustrated by John McKinley. This 86 page (large print) book, published by Scholastic includes at the back a newsy, fun letter from the author to the reader and Freddy’s Fun Pages which includes facts about sharks, a secret decoding riddle, a fill-in-the-blank silly story written by the main character, directions for building a bird feeder, and a maze.

The first page of the book states Freddy’s problem:

“I have a problem.  A really, really big problem. I never have anything cool to bring for show-and-tell. Let me tell you about it.”

The characters are the typical ones found in classrooms for students young enough to have Show-and-Tell in their curriculum, and will appeal to readers young enough to participate in this activity, especially those who might share Freddy’s problem. Without spoiling the plot or the outcome, read this book to your kid, grandkid, or students and see how Freddy goes from the Dunce of Show and Tell to the King of Show and Tell.

It is a funny book and an outstanding series.


Because I was born during WWII, I did not read Charlotte’s Web as a child, or at least that’s the excuse I offer. My first encounter with the title was during the first year of my teaching, 1967. I was teaching seventh grade in a junior high setting, and in class I had asked the kids what was the best book they’d ever read.  Unanimously, they agreed on Charlotte’s Web. Making little sense of their explanations that it was about a pig, a spider, and a girl and how the girl saved the pig with the help of the spider and the spider died. They were all taking at once in crazy run-on sentences, and I was totally unimpressed. That same afternoon, when I went to pick up My Better Half, who was starting his first year of teaching math at a nearby junior high in the same district, he asked me to “work on something” and let him finish a set of quizzes. I sat down in a student desk and discovered a copy of Charlotte’s Web that had been left in the desk. Call it serendipity; call it coincidence. I settled in, and began to read.

It was indeed what the children said, and so, so much more.  It was a story of friendship, loyalty, and of dealing with death. Later, it was often on my Top Ten bulletin board list during the next ten years when I taught seventh grade for Alvin (Texas) Independent School District.

I also had a “relationship” with Charlotte’s author, E.B. White. Because there was no Google my first year to teach, I never realized that our composition handbook’s author was the same. My very first class of seventh graders used White’s Elements of  Style almost every day without ever realizing who he was.

When I began teaching at the university where I teach now, I used Elements as a required textbook. I still refer to him and read from his text in my Advanced Writing classes.  Sadly, I no longer require the students to read from it because they complain about the “big words” and “stilted phrases” White uses (their words) and struggle to read it–sadly the same text the seventh graders of 1967 read, discussed, and asked questions about when it was too “hard” for them.

Sometime after 2014 when I started this blog (PWR), I came across a biography of White in Half Price Books, and enjoyed it so much I wrote a post reviewing it. It is The Story of Charlotte’s Web by Michael Sims. To read my review of it, type the title into the search box at the top or look it up by date, July 1, 2016. It will give you a pretty accurate idea of what the book covers.

I realize this is a personal history and not a review, as requested by Jay at “This Is My Truth Now” for his August Children’s Marathon, but the beginning of school is here, and this is what I have to offer today.

If you haven’t read Charlotte’s Web, read Jay’s review of it and get to know Charlotte and Wilbur. Warning: Keep a box of tissues nearby.

Two Books Read During the Holidays: Reviews

A grammar handbook and a magnificent children’s book written by a global hero couldn’t be more different, but those two books were two I read over the holidays.

Thomas Parrish’s The Grumpy Grammarian was laugh-out-loud funny. It’s subtitle is “A How-Not-To-Guide to the 47Most Common Mistakes in English Made by Journalists, Broadcasters, and Others Who Should Know Better.” The author, Parrish pretends to have an older friend who has saved clippings full of errors from writers who “should know better.” Some of these come from prestigious newspapers and magazines (The New Yorker, Newsweek, USA Today, Washington Post to name a few) Some of the errors that make the grammarian friend grumps are “picky”; some are outdated, but others are just W-R-O-N-G.  The malapropisms and dangling modifiers often make the reader chuckle . It is not a book for all, but it was a delight to this grumpy grammarian. I gave it to two grammarian friends, father and son, who are anything BUT grumpy and decided to let them enjoy it as I did.

A children’s book by Malala Yousafzai,the youngest winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, which is  beautifully illustrated by the husband and wife team who go by the pseudonym KERASCOET was another fascinating reading “experience” I had this holiday season. It begins:
“When Malala was a child in Pakistan, she wished for a magic pencil.  She would use it to…

‘…draw a lock on her door to keep her brothers out.

…stop time so she could sleep an extra hour every morning.

…erase the smell of the trash dump near her house.’ ”

It tells how Malala, more than anything wanted to attend school, but in Pakistan this was forbidden because she was a girl. The book tells and shows in pictures how Malala found a pencil and wrote about the challenges she faced as a girl/young woman in Pakistan, a war-torn region.  Worldwide, people read her writing. The horrible attack she suffered is handled in a sensitive way (It is a child’s book, after all.) and points out that she saw the “magic of hope” through it all. As the cover states, this spectacular book is “The true story of one girl’s wish for a better world.”  It would be the perfect birthday book for a child or grandchild.  I was thoroughly enchanted by the illustrations and intrigued by the story.

CLARICE BEAN: Review of a Children’s Book

Lauren Child’s charming chapter book, Utterly MeClarice Bean was not my first encounter with the girl of the title.  Several years ago, I found a book at Half Price Books for my Little Free Library (LFL) entitled Clarice Bean Spells Trouble which was about a kid who couldn’t spell if her life depended on it and a teacher, Mrs. Wilberton, who couldn’t understand why Clarice “just didn’t try.” This book, Utterly Me… is evidently the first in the Clarice Bean series. Clarice and her best friend, Betty Moody are “utterly” (Clarice’s favorite word) hooked on the Ruby Redford series (think Nancy Drew with James Bond gadgets and Batman’s butler).

Not only do Clarice and Betty follow the books (of which excerpts are included throughout), they write to the author and use the girl detective’s methods to solve a mystery in their own classroom, much to Mrs. Wilberton’s dismay  (She is not a fan of either Ruby Redford or Clarice.), Clarice and Betty decide to do their book report on a Ruby Redford book they are reading. Betty disappears, Clarice is partnered with the worst boy in class (who turns out not to be so bad), and eventually the mystery is solved with the culprit astonishing Mrs. Wilberton.

Secondary characters like Clarice’s and Betty’s parents, Clarice’s siblings, and various students in their class add humor, interest, and satisfaction. The cartoonish drawings which illustrate the story are excellent as well.

It is aimed at 8 year olds to early junior high, providing an excellent starter-chapter book for any girl or boy.  I received it as a discard from a local elementary school for my LFL, free, so I can boast that my five out of five star rating is totally unbiased. I am glad I took the time to read the book.