As part of my quest to read every Newbery Award winner, I couldn’t wait to revisit a childhood favorite: Charlotte’s Web. A heartwarming story about life, love, and death told through the eyes of a vibrant collection of characters— most of which are farm animals.
Wilbur didn’t want food, he wanted love.
Charlotte’s Web is extra special in my heart for many reasons. When I was a little girl, my mother read this book aloud to me. I had already found a passion for reading at a young age, but there is something extra special about a Mother reading aloud which creates a magical world. Then, in third grade, we read this book as a class. As part of our study, we were going to put on a play portraying this book. I desperately wanted to be cast as Fern. Unfortunately, I was not, and I remember being horrifically upset. My teacher came to find me at recess asking what was wrong:
Bawling Jackie: “I wanted to be Fern. She’s the most important.”
Bawling Jackie: “She’s the only girl.”
Teach: “..what about Charlotte? She saves Wilbur.”
<Jackie stares in wonderment>
Until that moment, it didn’t occur to me that us people could play animals. My teacher cast me as Charlotte, and I was introduced to theatre and an even deeper love of literature. Suddenly (even though I was only 11), I had to really understand the motivations of this character. I read this book repeatedly. I was determined to be as spider-like and Charlotte-like as I could. It was literally life changing.
Charlotte’s Web is a powerful story about the realities of life. The runt of a pig litter is saved by young Fern who names the tiny pig Wilbur. She cares for him until he grows large enough to need to live on her uncle’s farm. At Zuckerman’s farm Wilbur’s life is perfect– that is, until he learns that he will likely be this Christmas’s dinner! Horrified, Wilbur turns to the farm community, and to his closest friend Charlotte, A beautiful, intelligent gray spider with an impeccable vocabulary, to help rescue him from this terrible fate.
Fern was up at daylight, trying to rid the world of injustice. As a result she now has a pig. A small one to be sure, but nevertheless a pig. It just shows what can happen if a person gets out of bed promptly.
The magic in this book is hard to nail down. Perhaps it comes from how the farm animals are portraying human characteristics, but still behave like the animals they are. Perhaps it is the humor which appeals to both children and adults alike. Perhaps it is the well-crafted set of characters who all serve their own part in this story. Perhaps it comes from the ease of which the animals discuss the realities of life, death, friendship, and change– and in such a way that the horrors are acknowledged, but also accepted as part of life.
In this reading, I listened to the audiobook as read by E.B. White. If you think White’s prose is gorgeous before listening to him read this text, just you wait! I was honestly transported to a new place completely. His words are so simple, yet strung together in a way that portrays life and characters in a very real way.
The crickets felt it was their duty to warn everybody that summertime cannot last forever. Even on the most beautiful days in the whole year – the days when summer is changing into autumn – the crickets spread the rumor of sadness and change.
The only downside to listening to the audiobook is that you miss out on Garth Williams’ gorgeous illustrations (included in this post). Williams worked closely with White to ensure these characters came to life in White’s vision. Honestly, I don’t think I would have clicked so much with this book as a child if it weren’t for this art. I learned a lot about Garth Williams and the origin of this art from the 50th Anniversary edition Afterward by Peter F. Neumeyer. For example, did you know that originally charlotte was going to be an anthropomorphic spider? Obviously, White wouldn’t have it. And I’m so glad.
No one ever had such a friend — so affectionate, so loyal, and so skillful.
If you have never read Charlotte’s Web before, I strongly encourage you to do so. It’s a beautiful book, and I know you’ll find meaning within its pages. This will always be a favorite of mine, and I hope it becomes one for you if it isn’t already.
What do you think?
- Have you read Charlotte’s Web before? Did you enjoy it or not?
- What books from your childhood have withstood the test of time? What books do you still love as an adult?
- Have you seen any of the film adaptations? How do they compare to the book?
- What character is your favorite?