Some books are so much a part of our childhood experience that when we hear their titles we can almost smell the pages of the book itself, remember where we were when we first opened it, and conjure up entire scenes and memories of reading it for the first or many times thereafter. Charlotte's Web is one of those books. Today, the most famous book by the masterful E.B. White has turned 60. It is no worse for wear in terms of readability and resonance, even amid a world of Y.A. dystopias, fantasies, and futuristic plots and themes. The simple tale of a pig, a girl, and a spider, beginning with a life saved (Wilbur's, by the girl, Fern, and later by Charlotte the spider) and ending with a death—but then new life—is threaded through with the personal conflicts, conversations, and camaraderie of the various barnyard creatures involved. It's one for the ages.
We all know the plot, right? This should come as a spoiler to no one:
Wilbur, a tiny piglet, the runt of the litter, is saved by 8-year-old Fern Arable, who begs her dad to let her keep him as a pet. He does, but after Wilbur is old enough, nursed to health by a bottle, the pig is sent to live on Fern's Uncle Homer's farm. Fern gets older and stops visiting so often, and poor Wilbur gets lonely, until he meets a new friend: Charlotte the spider. When it becomes clear (with the help of an old sheep on the farm) that Wilbur is being fattened up because he's intended as a holiday meal, wise Charlotte promises to save him and begins to spin webs that will convince the humans that Wilbur is a pig beyond the pale. Wilbur becomes famous—in another time, Wilbur would have had a reality show—left to live out his years in peace on the farm, but happily ever after has complications.
As an added perk for the semantic-minded, Charlotte is kind of a word-nerd: Upon her webs, illustrated in the book by Garth Williams, she writes "some pig," "terrific," "radiant," and "humble." As Eudora Welty wrote in her 1952 New York Times review of the book, of the character of the spider, "When her friends wake up in the morning she says 'Salutations!'—in spite of sometimes having been up all night herself, working." It's worth noting that Charlotte is a great female character—smart, brave, loyal, and doing what she needs to do, even if she's spider rather than human; Fern, also, is an empowered, courageous girl, even at just 8 years old.
Welty added, "As a piece of work it is just about perfect, and just about magical in the way it is done. What it all proves—in the words of the minister in the story which he hands down to his congregation after Charlotte writes 'Some Pig' in her web—is 'that human beings must always be on the watch for the coming of wonders.'''
Sixty years later, White's children's classic is one of the most-read books of all time. Brooklyn children's librarian Rita Meade told me, "Charlotte's Web has been a staple on school reading lists for what seems like forever, and every time a kid requests it, I tell them 'Oh, you're going to love this book.' I don't have the heart to tell them how sad it is, of course, but I guess it's something that every kid has to experience for him or herself."
It is, in fact, terribly sad. Of course, that's some of the beauty of it; like other deeply tragic and moving kids' books (A Bridge to Terabithia, for example) readers befriend and learn to love characters right along with the other characters in those books who are doing the same—and then, when those characters are so unfairly wrenched from us, we suffer along with their book-based friends. Of course, death is a part of life, and that's one of the messages of these children's books. But there's redemption in that love and friendship having been there before death, which is one reason we rely on these these books as formative reading material. As Charlotte tells Wilbur, "You have been my friend. That in itself is a tremendous thing. I wove my webs for you because I liked you. After all, what’s a life, anyway? We’re born, we live a little while, we die. A spider’s life can’t help being something of a mess, with all this trapping and eating flies. By helping you, perhaps I was trying to lift up my life a trifle. Heaven knows anyone’s life can stand a little of that."
In an NPR piece today in honor of the book's 60th, author Michael Sims, who wrote The Story of Charlotte's Web, about White's life and famous novel, reveals that when the writer narrated the audiobook of his work in 1970, he couldn't resist the emotional pull either:
"He, of course, as anyone does doing an audio book, had to do several takes for various things, just to get it right," Sims says. "But every time, he broke down when he got to Charlotte's death. And he would do it, and it would mess up. ... He took 17 takes to get through Charlotte's death without his voice cracking or beginning to cry."
Meade adds, of the book's longevity, "I think it's been around for so long because of the honesty of the characters and the way they convey their feelings—even though most of them aren't human, [we get a whole barnyard of characters, in fact] they feel and express human emotions and that makes these emotions more easily relatable to kids. It's a great book for starting discussions about difficult issues with young readers," she says. "It's just a great book anyway."