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Charlotte's Web

Continuing my series on books that I read and loved as a child, today I'm talking about Charlotte's Web. I first read the book when I was about 8, and I read it at least twice more as a child. This book is a fascinating one, because the main character is a talking pig named Wilbur: not Charlotte the spider, found in the title, and not Fern, the little girl featured in the opening scene. No, it's Wilbur, who doesn't really step into the hero role until a little way into the book. It's the sort of thing that one usually thinks of as against the rules, but since the author of the book wrote some of the rules (Strunk & White anyone?), I suppose he knew when to follow them and when to break them.

The opening line of this book is one of the most chilling sentences in children's literature, if you ask me: "Where's Papa going with that ax?" Turns out that one of the piglets in the new litter is a runt, and Papa's off to, well, off the runt. Fern intercedes and raises the pig, whom she names Wilbur. In one of the most awful moments in the book (from my child reader perspective), Papa sells Wilbur to Mr. Zuckerman. As a nonfarming youngster, the notion that someone could take your "pet" pig and sell it out from under you was mortifying.

Lonely Wilbur settles in at Mr. Zuckerman's farm, and makes a new friend with Charlotte, a spider who is at first only a kind voice. He meets additional animals at the farm (a rat, a goose, and more), and is distressed to learn that he's being raised to be made into, well, meat. (This is one of those books that has convinced a number of children that "meat is murder", by the way, due to the anthropomorphism of the animals involved, although the movie Babe is single-handedly responsible for the creation of at least 4 child/teen vegetarians in my acquaintance.) Charlotte intervenes by weaving words into her web, which keeps him alive long enough to warrant a trip to the State Fair. At the State Fair, the rat friend steals papers with words on them, and an ailing Charlotte weaves them into her web, turning Wilbur into a celebrity. Alas, poor Charlotte - she creates her egg sack and asks Wilbur to take it with him back to the farm, where most of the wee spiders parachute away in the breeze. But at least three of Charlotte's daughter hang out with Wilbur, who (one presumes) lives to a ripe old age, not meat after all.

And now, to think about the elements that attracted me to the text, which are wound up with the things I recall liking about the book:

1. The suspense. Would Wilbur live? Would he be killed? What about Charlotte? The book manages to generate suspense on smaller matters, too: Will that bum egg burst and stink? Will the rat be discovered on the way to the fair?

2. Talking animals. I know, I know. But like many kids, I loved animals. And talking animals were just fine with me. I kind of hoped I'd have the good luck to meet some talking animals, if you want to know the truth.

3. Rooting for the underdog. Poor Wilbur had all kinds of odds stacked against him, and the stakes were always his life. Those are awfully high stakes, and Wilbur was a bit powerless to help himself. Also? The smallest creature in the book is the smartest, cleverest one who manages to orchestrate Wilbur's solution for him.

What this had in common with the other four books, Jane-Emily the other day, and The Borrowers, Little Men and Swiss Family Robinson:

1. As in all other four books, I didn't feel like the book talked down to kids. I am now starting to wonder if this is something I'm going to find with every book in this series. Or maybe I set that bar too low. But I rather think not.

2. As in all other four books, it included the bad as well as the good, including some rather disturbing/distressing passages dealing with the killing and/or deaths of animals, including dealing with humans who are beloved by characters in the book who are plotting Wilbur's death (Papa, Mr. Zuckerman).

3. As in The Borrowers, Jane-Emily, and The Swiss Family Robinson, the suspense was what really drove this book.

4. A minor point, really, but in common with Little Men and Jane-Emily, this book is about a pig who, while not technically an orphan (that we know of - who knows what happened to his mother, after all?), feels like an orphan throughout. He meets a kind adult (Charlotte) who does her best to protect and console him. Every child should have a Charlotte.

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( 15 comments — Leave a comment )
Sep. 9th, 2008 12:42 am (UTC)
Charlotte's Web is, I think, the most perfect book in every sense, isn't it? I've read it at least a dozen times. The last being two years ago to my daughter. I cry harder each time knowing what's coming. I simply adore this book. Even the cover is simply perfect.

Aw, Kelly. I think I'll have to reread it yet again.
Sep. 9th, 2008 01:27 am (UTC)
I agree that it's perfect, in the same way that I think Holes by Louis Sachar was a perfect book, and so was Because of Winn Dixie by Kate DiCamillo. But I digress.

You are right about crying harder every time, because knowing what's coming makes it worse. Nevertheless, each reading also makes me tense with suspense: even though I know Wilbur ends up okay, I still worry that he might not.
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Sep. 9th, 2008 02:53 am (UTC)
You're right about the humor. I wasn't remembering it, but it's definitely there. And books that make you cry as well as laugh are some of the best sorts of books, I think.
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Sep. 9th, 2008 02:55 am (UTC)
'Tis true, indeed. Although I am lucky to have more than one true friend who is a good writer. Still, those folks are a rare gift.
Sep. 9th, 2008 02:28 am (UTC)
I've never been able to read this book to my kids because it makes me cry so much! It's a great book, but underneath the obvious darkness there's an even more subtle thread of darkness--starting at the beginning when there's a totally unremarked-upon smell of bacon frying in the kitchen as Fern runs out to save Wilbur, and continuing right through the end as Fern grows up (rather prematurely, IMO) and pretty much forgets about Wilbur.
Sep. 9th, 2008 02:52 am (UTC)
You are so right about the darkness under there. But Jenn was also correct about the humor scattered throughout the book. And some folks seeing the irony in the bacon at the start might find it kind of funny, rather than dark. So, really, there are both things going on. (But Pearl's drifting off is truly sad-making, in part, I think, because we meet her first, and for a while we think she might be our main character, until things shift to Wilbur - having your main character leave before the end is just not satisfying to kid readers.)
Sep. 9th, 2008 03:28 am (UTC)
My favorite book also. It's been a few years so maybe it's time for me to read it again. Just thinking about it makes me feel all warm inside.
Sep. 9th, 2008 11:22 am (UTC)
Don't you love books like that? Just seeing the cover of this book makes me inexplicably happy.
Sep. 9th, 2008 04:51 am (UTC)
I didn't read this as a kid despite some of my friends urging me to. (I had spider issues. I still do, but not as much.)

I love the humour. And the talking animals. And the last line.
Sep. 9th, 2008 11:21 am (UTC)
The funny thing is that had you read it as a child, you might have gotten past your spider issues a bit, because Charlotte is so kind. Then again, the ending, when the hundreds of babies swarm out of the egg sack and fly off, might have added to spider creepiness levels.

I'm glad you finally read it.
Sep. 9th, 2008 04:39 pm (UTC)
a question and a spoiler
Yeah, I might have felt a bit better about spiders, at least fictional ones, but the pictures would have freaked me out. An unillustrated version might have been okay, if anyone could have persuaded me to read it.

Do you think White chose a spider, a pig and even a rat in order to make us rethink our stereotypes about these less glamorous animals?

****SPOILER ALERT***** (for the few people who haven't read it)

My friends gave CW to their eight-years-old son, perhaps as bibliotherapy, shortly after his grandfather died. He refused to read any further after you-kno-who died. No amount of reassurances about happy endings could make him finish the book.

Edited at 2008-09-09 04:44 pm (UTC)
Sep. 9th, 2008 08:19 pm (UTC)
Re: a question and a spoiler
Poor guy.
Sep. 9th, 2008 12:48 pm (UTC)
It's fun rereading with you! I'm teaching this book next week, and it's as satisfying as when I taught ninth grade and did To Kill a Mockingbird. It's one of the few books no one despises and everyone wants to talk about. Maybe the tears are some part of that?
Sep. 9th, 2008 12:52 pm (UTC)
M would probably agree that tears play into it. Most of her favorite books have made her cry at least once. Or laughed so hard that she almost cried, as with the easy reader, Minnie and Moo Go Dancing.

Edited at 2008-09-09 12:52 pm (UTC)
( 15 comments — Leave a comment )

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