By Gary Nelson
Senior staff writer
Last week was the 60th anniversary of the publication of the American classic E.B. White children's book Charlotte's Web. I remember the book well, as well as the film adaptations. I vividly remember my mother reading the book to me as a child. She was a high school librarian before the computer age and read a tremendous amount.
She would read to me often when I was a child and that triggered my love and appreciation of the written word. I rediscovered Charlotte's Web as an adult after we purchased the video for my young daughter to watch. The animated movie production, which was released in the early '70s, was reportedly not well-liked by White. However, it triggered many to continue reading the popular book — including me. I rediscovered the book and realized it was not just for children, but equally for an adult audience.
Last year a book revisiting White's classic was written by Michael Sims. The Story of Charlotte's Web: E.B. White's eccentric life in nature and the birth of an American classic.
Sims, who now lives in Pennsylvania, is originally from Crossville and was educated in Cumberland County.
For the 60th anniversary of the release of Charlotte's Web, Sims was contacted and featured on national news media interviews including CBS for the "Saturday Morning Show" and on National Public Radio's (NPR) program "All Things Considered," as well as many other programs.
In The Story of Charlotte's Web, Sims examines how the story was created by White and for part of his research, Sims traveled to the farm in Maine that was formerly owned by White and his wife and was the inspiration of the book.
While visiting the farm, Sims saw familiar sites referenced in Charlotte's Web including the barn and rope from Fern's swing, which are still intact.
Due to Sims' book, which delves into the creation of White's story about Charlotte and her relationship with Wilbur the pig and his vast research, he is considered an expert regarding the subject of the book.
The book also delves into White's personality and his background.
Sims, a 1978 graduate of Cumberland County High School, said his love of writing began at an early age.
"My parents were Vance Sims, a North Carolinian who died at a young age when I was a child, and Ruby Norris Sims, who was born in Cumberland County and died there this summer at the age of 85. I was born and grew up in Homestead, although we lived for a couple of years in Meridian, near Daddy’s Creek. In Homestead we lived next door to my great uncle and aunt, Bud and Matt Hedgecoth, wonderful people who were so generous to us, and I feel as if my whole childhood imagination is shaped like the small parcel of woods between our house and theirs," Michael Sims said.
Receiving national attention for his work has been rewarding, but Sims said he enjoys the writing.
"Many people think that such media attention is glamorous or somehow the reward for hard work. Actually, it’s just another part of the hard work. Book tours and TV and radio shows are as tiring and stressful as any other work-related travel. For me, the glamorous part of being a writer is getting to sit down every morning at home and work by myself on a project I care about. I’m not shy and I like for my books to get attention, and I’ve worked hard to learn how to do better interviews (and I enjoy them), but the real fun is in the typing," he said.
Sims said he got the idea for writing about Charlotte's Web after revisiting his favorite children's animal stories.
"I thought I would enjoy revisiting those great children's animal stories that I've always loved, such as Rabbit Hill, The Cricket in Times Square, Charlotte's Web, The Wind in the Willows. For some reason, I'm fascinated by how our imagination responds to nature. We look at the world from which we came and it sparks such interesting responses, from an ecological worldview to Planet of the Apes. I began with Charlotte’s Web and found E. B. White’s personality so interesting that his story grew into an entire book, The Story of Charlotte’s Web," Sims said.
Sims also credited teachers in Cumberland County for his interest in writing.
"I liked most of my teachers, and most were devoted and kind, but I particularly loved and was inspired by James Flatt, my fifth-grade teacher at Homestead Elementary School, and Lou Crowder, my senior English teacher at CCHS. I've been back in touch with both in adulthood. Mrs. Crowder was my first editor and I kept all the compositions she critiqued. But also I have to mention my wonderful cousin Helen Derrick, a teacher and farmer who lives in Grassy Cove. She was the first person to encourage me to write. I still have the issues of Writer’s Digest that she gave me for my birthday in my late teens, one of which had an interview with Ray Bradbury that I still find inspirational.
"I had rheumatic fever and, beginning in 1971 at the age of 13, I had 'homebound' teachers for several years. These were hard-working and kind-hearted people, some of whom already worked full-time jobs and then visited students' houses to teach them after hours. Mr. Flatt from Homestead reappeared in this role for a few years, after teaching full days at Homestead. He also gave me three paperback mystery novels one Christmas, and those helped launch my interest in mysteries, which shows up in several of the anthologies I’ve edited," Sims said.
Other things inspired Sims to be a writer as well.
"I think it was the combination of a yearning to communicate and an urge to pursue a craft. I like to make things. I’ve always drawn and painted, taken photographs, written fiction or nonfiction or poetry. My mother made quilts and crocheted and ran a craft shop. Making things seems natural to me.
"I began writing at an early age. I wrote all kinds of vignettes. I described a dramatic deep-sea sort of fight between fish and then revealed at the end that I was watching it in our aquarium. (At the age of 11, I thought this gimmick very clever.) I wrote hilariously bad mystery stories imitating episodes of Dragnet or other TV shows. I tried and abandoned numerous imitations of Jim Kjelgaard’s great dog story Big Red. I cranked out outlines of science fiction novels I never wrote, including lists of cool alien names," he said.
Sims has authored several books, short stories and essays and has edited many books, as well. He has been interviewed on dozens of radio programs in the US and several other countries.
His essays, articles, reviews, and book excerpts have appeared in many periodicals, including New York Times, The Times (London), Reader's Digest, New Republic, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Chronicle of Higher Education, Orion, American Archaeology, Health, Medical Anthropology Quarterly, and Financial Times (Australia).
Sims is currently working on several projects.
"I’m almost finished with a novel-like biographical narrative about the young Thoreau, entitled The Adventures of Henry Thoreau. It begins when he’s a teenager and covers his twenties, all the time leading up to and encompassing his Walden years. You can tell from the title that it’s an outdoorsy book about his real life, not an analysis of his writings. It’s filled with boat trips and mountain climbing, but also with trips to New York City in 1843. Boy, was that fun to write—the young Thoreau in Manhattan!
"After that, I’m finally doing a book about Charles Darwin, whom I’ve always found the most interesting person in history. It will be a biographical narrative about his young adulthood, courtship, marriage and, at the same time, his realization of how nature changes slowly over time, based upon his discoveries during the five-year Beagle voyage...," Sims said.
Bloomsbury invited Sims to edit an anthology and he launched a series, the Connoisseur’s Collection of Victorian Stories, which included a volume of vampire stories, detective stories and ghost stories, which is almost complete. There are more to come.
"Also, I’m editing a big anthology of nineteenth-century nature writing. It’s the great age of discovery and I never get enough of it," Sims said.
It's fascinating to me that Crossville and Cumberland County and its people have inspired so many to go out into the world and pursue their dreams.
Through talking to Sims this past summer and conversing over Facebook for the past year, it's refreshing to see such a down-to-earth guy become a successful writer who got his start right here in Cumberland County.
If you'd like more information about Michael Simms and some of the other books he's written, visit his web site at http://michaelsimsbooks.com.
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Gary Nelson is a Crossville Chronicle staffwriter. His column is published each Friday. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.