#87. Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White
Charlotte’s Web is a heartwarming children’s novel written by the American author E.B. White and published by Harper & Brothers in 1952. The original novel that I read was illustrated by Garth Williams. This classic, written in a dry, low-key style, spins a tale about the life of Wilbur, a pig and his first and most dedicated friend, Charlotte. White credits his summers in the Belgrade Lakes of Maine and his passion for nature as to the warmth and inspiration for his children’s books, including Charlotte’s Web.
In 1948, White published an essay for the Atlantic Monthly titled Death of a Pig, a personal account of the death of a sick pig that was bought to fatten for butchering, and his sense of failure at not being able to cure the animal. In each little detail of the slow spiral downwards we can feel White’s pain and his sense of helplessness at being unable to heal this pig. Is it possible that Charlotte’s Web is White’s way of redeeming himself by saving the pig in the story? Ursula Nordstrom, White’s editor recalls the day in 1952 when he handed her the only known copy of the manuscript out of the blue after three years of diligent work. She was extremely pleased with the results. Originally, this story opened up with an introduction to Wilbur and the Zuckerman’s barnyard, but after contemplating an opening from the humans’ point of view, he pushed the original scene back and labeled it “Chapter 3: Escape”. Maria Nikolajeva, author of The Rhetoric of Character in Children’s Novels, proclaimed the new beginning a failure, for starting with, but then abandoning the human dimension, specifically regarding Fern. But Seth Lerer, author of Children’s Literature lifts White’s presentation of humanity and the strong feminine creativity and composition that he found in Charlotte, and compared her to female characters of other well-known children’s literature, such as Jo March in Little Women and Mary Lennox in The Secret Garden. Nordstrom thought that a different ending might have worked better for the novel, but try as he might, White couldn’t produce anything else that surpassed the existing conclusion. At her coaching, he did rename Chapter 21 from “The Death of Charlotte” to “The Last Day”. This simple change alone was the only alteration made to that original manuscript before publishing. Fifty thousand copies were printed immediately, and by the time the 2006 film adaption was released, the book had sold more than 45 million copies according to the film publicity, and was translated into 23 languages. The critic Anne Carroll Moore, a powerful head of Children’s Services of the New York Public Library wrote in The Horn Book that White’s book was “hard to take from so masterful a hand”. It’s often thought that Moore was the main reason that Charlotte’s Web was the runner up in receiving the gold Newberry Seal in 1953, losing to the obscure The Secret of the Andes by Ann Nolan Clark.
The protagonist Wilbur is under a constant threat of death. First, as the runt of the litter, Mr. Arable is determined to end what he feels is a life that will never amount to anything. This is derailed by the determination and compassion of his young daughter Fern. Later, as Wilbur grows in size, he experiences the threat of being slaughtered. His fate and security is sealed by Charlotte, a grey barn spider. She spins words such as “Some Pig” (Page 77) and “Terrific” (Page 94) into her webs. Mr. Zuckerman and his household view the appearance of these words as a “miracle” (Title of Chapter 11). Through these animals of the barnyard and such miracles as Charlotte’s web writings, White is able to bring such qualities as friendship, loyalty, death and valor down to a child’s perspective. While some may view Charlotte’s Web as a slightly pessimistic book, the overall sentiment of love that saves Wilbur is an underlying positive theme. It is a carefully told tale of the circle of life, as we are mystified by Charlotte’s entrance into the tale (Chapter 4: Loneliness, page 31) and saddened by her exit (Chapter 21: Last Days, page 171).
The inspiration behind Charlotte was originally a Grey Cross spider, the scientific name of which was originally as Epeira sclopetaria, but later changed to Aranea sericata. He called her Charlotte Epeira. Later, giving the final touches to the novel, he gave the full and slightly different name of “Charlotte A. Cavatica, for the barn spider, an orb weaver whose scientific name is Araneus cavaticus. White used information from American Spiders by Willis J. Gertsch and The Spider Book by John Henry Comstock. Williams originally drew Charlotte with a woman’s head, but White sent him a copy of Gertsch’s book and encouraged a realistic spider for this story.
The first animated featured adapted from this book appeared in 1973. Hanna-Barbera Productions and Sagittarius Productions collaborated on the animated musical that generally received positive reviews. The year 2006 was a busy year for Charlotte’s Web. A live-action film rendition was released December 15th, 2006, and casted such stars as Dakota Fanning, Julia Roberts, and Steve Buscemi. A video game was also released in the same year.
Best-Selling Children’s Paperback, Publisher’s Weekly – 2000
Newberry Honor Book – 1953
Laura Ingalls Wilder Medal (for Charlotte’s Web & Stuart Little) – 1970
National Education Association “Teachers’ Top 100 Books for Children” – 2007
School Library Journal “Top 100 Chapter Books” – 2012
Massachusetts Children’s Book Award – 1984
Horn Book Fanfare
#170 BBC Big Read – 2003
#87 BBC Top 100 Books List – 2012
GoodReads “Books Everyone Should Read
#46 NPR: 100 Years, 100 Novels
#13 Radcliff’s Rival 100 Best Novels
World Book Day Poll Top 100