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Charlotte’s Web | Class #6, fall 2017

During our last class meeting (November 15), our mock book award committees will meet, discuss, and vote. We have three Caldecott committees, one Geisel committee, and one Sibert. We try to make the experience as authentic as possible, which means bringing in snacks (a key part of my own award experiences) and we follow ALA/ALSC’s terms and criteria when discussing each book, voting, and choosing honor books. I’ll post the results here sometime after the 15th.

In preparing for mock awards, I highly recommend these two Horn Book articles:

For this class’s reading assignment, it’s Charlotte’s Web. In my opinion, this classic children’s books truly deserves its status. It also fits in with our award theme because it did not win the Newbery in 1953 — though it was an honor book. If this was your first read, what did you think? Did it live up to its reputation? If this was a re-read, what did you notice this time that you might have missed before?

Finally, we’re reading an article about E. B. White from the Smithsonian Magazine website that sheds light on the origins of this book. We’ll discuss both the book and the article in the comments of this post.

 

Lolly Robinson About Lolly Robinson

Lolly Robinson is the creative director for The Horn Book, Inc. She has degrees in studio art and children's literature and teaches children's literature at Harvard University's Graduate School of Education. She has served on the Caldecott and Boston Globe-Horn Book Award committees and blogs for Calling Caldecott and Lolly's Classroom on this site.

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  1. Have you looked at Melissa Sweet’s Some Writer! I brought it into my E. B. White author study this year and it was fabulous. https://medinger.wordpress.com/2017/09/24/in-the-classroom-using-melissa-sweets-some-writer-in-an-e-b-white-author-study/ They used it in their close readings and in a piece of writing where they gave examples of how White used his life in his children’s books. Need to write a post about that!

  2. Lolly Robinson Lolly Robinson says:

    Thanks, Monica. I’m bringing Some Writer! to our next class for the browsing table and will be sure to link to your post in my PPT and on the course website!

  3. Gaelle Pierre-Louis says:

    I remember reading Charlotte’s Web in grade school, but re-reading it has been an exciting, nostalgic moment for me. In the article we read, it stated that E.B. White’s “basic writing mode is personification” and that “he could animate a splash of sunlight.” I remember that we had to analyze the idea of personification= that qualities associated with humans can be explained through animals- in my classroom. We learned themes about friendship, fate, loneliness and love through the human qualities associated with Wilburn, Charlotte and the like. Some of the things that surprise me are the 1) normalization of dead in this children’s book, 2) social justice underpinnings in this book (i.e. saving the pig from murder) , and the 3) gendered relationships underlying the book (girl spider meets boy pig). When I discussed this book as a child, I didn’t see those issues arise in our discussions about this book. But now, I can imagine a different lesson plan around this book that could cover important deep subjects for adults as much as for children. I truly believe that every adult should read and discuss this book with each other because it could help us frame our understandings of justice related issues.

  4. Amy Ng Tsz Ying says:

    I also remember Charlotte’s Web being a required reading when I was in grade seven or so. Back then I find this reading not interesting – perhaps because of a transition to a much more demanding text in middle school? However rereading the book surprises me by how many themes they incorporate through a story of human-animal interaction. For instance in the beginning how Wilbur gave up freedom to be back in the pigpen for food, thinking that it was too risky and scary and he was too young to explore the world – contrasting with the goose’s excitement for freedom – perhaps resonates well with how children are getting much more autonomy in decisions when they enter middle school. I think back then I did not read the version of Charlotte’s Web with full-color illustrations which I have this time – the illustrations help a lot in arousing interests.

  5. Xinyu (Cynthia) Wang says:

    The book, as the writer Eudora Welty described, has liveliness and felicity, tenderness and unexpectedness, grace and humor and praise of life, and the good backbone of succinctness. The spring pig named Wilbur and the big grey spider Charlotte are the hero and heroine of the book. We could see friendship, intimacy and protect, adventure and miracle, trust and betrayal, happiness and misery. It’s a book people could get energy from when they feel lonely and frustrated. As a Chinese reviewer said in a book, “Is it meaningful to saving a little pig? Maybe it is as important as Saving Private Ryan.” The respect for life and humanity, the expectation for the miracle and the happiness of seeing a new world are all over the book.

  6. I read Charlotte’s Web when I was still in elementary school. Charlotte’s wisdom, Wilbur’s kindness, together with their previous friendship impressed me so much. It is such as a heartwarming book that is suitable for each child as well as English language learner to read in class or during bedtime. The author uses delicate and detailed description to present readers with the nuances of characters’ emotions and thoughts. It makes children shift from stories centering on human beings to animals which could also have rich feelings. Moreover, some adults might think it is not a good idea to teach children living and death, but this book is an appropriate starting point for children to have the basic idea of living and death. Witnessing the dedication and effort that the spider Charlotte made in order to save Wilbur, children would learn what living and death means and come to know the inner beauty of life and the value of friendship.

  7. Charlotte’s Web is such a unique read. I read this book with my mom every night when I was about seven years old. I remember vividly when we finished the book because we both cried. It seemed silly then, but looking back on it now, this was one of the first books that I was emotionally invested in. The writing is so beautiful that it can touch a young mind and an adult mind alike. This book can also be a good way for a child to begin to understand the meaning of death and it can spark important conversations about losing a loved one. This book has such a magical effect on young readers. They love it while they’re reading it, and remember it years later. I also remember that after I read this book I caught a real spider from the backyard and kept it in a dixie cup as a pet and named it Charlotte. Something about this book sparked my love of reading and when I just read it as an adult I can see why. The writing is beautiful and detailed, but understandable and subtle. The characters are well developed and this makes the reader love each character differently. This level of depth in the character development and the development of relationships you might see in an adult novel, which is one of the reasons why this book is so incredible.

  8. Arienne L. Calingo says:

    This was my first time reading the classic masterpiece “Charlotte’s Web” by E. B. White. I had watched the movie as a child without having read the book first. While I usually prefer reading books before their movie adaptations, I feel that I would not have appreciated the story as much had I read “Charlotte’s Web” as a child. The harsh realities of life involving friendship and death are exposed, which made me cry and love the story. As an arachnophobe, I love how White did not portray the spider as a terrifying, dreadful creature; it is uncommon to see spiders portrayed as friendly creatures!

    The article from the Smithsonian Magazine website was a wonderful supplement to reading the book. After learning about White’s connection to nature and animals, I gained the sense that he was a tender, compassionate man. My favorite quote from the article is that “Elwyn ‘became aware that animals were actors themselves, living their own busy lives, not merely background characters in his own little drama.’” We are usually taught that animals are subordinate to man. In “Charlotte’s Web” White shows that each animal has its own character and uniqueness in a humorous and heartwarming way.

  9. Gabrielle Abramow says:

    I really enjoy Charlotte’s Web because the story does not only appeal to children but also adults. The story has a meaningful lesson in which everyone goes through the cycle of life. Therefore, while tragedy occurs one has to be optimistic and continue to help others. I also really enjoyed reading the article regarding how E.B. White Wove Charlotte’s Web. I was fascinated by the fact that E.B. White was extremely shy and found a deep connection with animals which was viewed within his writing as he “hid behind animals”. I think a lot of people can relate to this feeling and the reason behind how the story was created. I hope that authors will continue to be inspired by E.b. White’s work and strive to create more renowned stories like this one.

  10. Sedef Seker says:

    It was so interesting to go through the blog posts and read about how people’s thinking/feelings changed as they re-read the book. This was my first reading of Charlotte’s Web. I was happily surprised by how realistic and direct some descriptions were in this book. Depictions of Charlotte, and what she does to feed, Charlotte and Wilbur’s developing friendship and Wilbur’s feelings of fear and loneliness… I think Charlotte’s Web has the power to reach all kids in different levels with its accessible style, depth and variety of themes. While I could imagine kids in elementary school reading/listening to the book for its exciting, relatable and accessible story, I was also imagining much deeper conversation with older kids. The book is perfect for discussing deep and complex topics including animal’s rights, death, and the cycle of life.

  11. I first read the book when I was in primary school. I remember that I very much enjoyed reading this book. The vivid description and the personification of animals, the overarching theme of friendship and life and death all seem appealing to both children and adults. But back then, I never thought about the intention for the author to write this book, until I read the article “How E.B. White Wove Charlotte’s Web”. Similar to what the guest speakers in our class have said, authors usually wrote about their own story. As a devoted naturalist, White “felt for animals a kinship he never felt for people”. With his fascination and empathy for nature and animals, no wonder he could weave such a wonderful story.

  12. Marion Cunningham says:

    At the end of the audio version, the question is asked, “What four words would you choose to save a friend’s life?” What a great question!

    The story Charlotte’s Web is a story about the cycle of life – which includes death; and embedding the story within a farming community may have made it easier for the reader to accept the natural rhythms of life. It is also a story about continuing to move through the challenging moments so you can experience the positive ones. At one point, a tearful Wilbur bemoans, “I’m very young, I have no real friend here in the barn, it’s going to rain all morning and all afternoon, and Fern won’t come in such bad weather…” (p27) However, by the middle of the book, “no pig ever had truer friends, and he realized that friendship is one of the most satisfying things in the world.” (p115) The story presents the ups and downs one encounters in life along with the consistency of friendship – Fern’s and Charlotte’s – and the importance of friends to create meaning in life: “By helping you, perhaps I was trying to lift up my life a trifle” says Charlotte on page 164.

  13. Nezile Mthembu says:

    I forgot how descriptive Charlotte’s Web is, and how well-developed the animal characters are. I was immersed in the children’s novel just as much as I was when my school teacher read it to our class over 18-years ago.
    As a Language & Literacy graduate student, I found a new appreciation of the book that I didn’t have before. This children’s novel has plenty of opportunities for literacy learning and instruction. As I was reading, I saw good moments to turn-and-talk about the vocabulary in the story. I thought about the specific ways English Language Learners (ELLs) and emerging readers that I’ve taught in the past would benefit from a book like Charlotte’s Web.

  14. Katie Torrisi says:

    After reading “How E.B. White Wrote Charlotte’s Web,” I was able to look at the original text with a new lens. I had read the book as a child and was excited to revisit it all these years later. I hadn’t initially realized just how deeply White connected with animals, and how crucial that connection was to his work. As an English teacher, I’m always thinking about how to connect literature to larger themes, especially in relation to social justice. Charlotte’s Web could be a great way to introduce the concept of animal rights. In a more general sense, the book could be used to teach kids about how one person, no matter how small, can make a huge difference in someone else’s life, as Charlotte did for Wilbur. Charlotte was a hero not only because she saved Wilbur’s life, but because she was a dear friend to him. It’s her friendship that he misses after she’s gone, a great part of the lasting legacy she leaves behind.

  15. Casey Carlson says:

    During her presentation, Grace Lin said, “how can you expect to have a vision of the world if you haven’t looked inside yourself?” This quote stuck with me as it captures the first step in considering writing my own children’s book. According to Lin, this self-reflection is the “magic sauce” to writing a book that carries meaning. Based on the article, E.B. White also echoed Grace Lin’s sentiment. Charlotte’s Web was born out of White’s adoration and deep connection with animals. He said, “Animals are part of my world and I try to report them faithfully and with respect.” Not only was Charlotte’s Web, born out of this vision of the world, but Stuart Little was as well. It is clear that this lens through which White encountered the world provided the inspiration for novels that engage children and adults across generations and cultures. As Eudora Welty from the New York Times said, it’s “just about magical in the way it’s done.” Both White’s and Lin’s unique perspectives inspire me to contemplate my own identity and how that might inform my writing.

  16. Sanya Sagar says:

    This was my first time reading Charlotte’s Web and I was surprised because, frankly, I had forgotten its role as a children’s book. I have come across so many analyses and articles about the book and what it may be interpreted as, that in my mind it had become a book for adults. But finally reading the story made me realize why this book is held in such high regard. The characters are beautiful fleshed out, reflecting grey instead of clear black and white that children’s books do so many times. White trusts his audience, the children, to be able to relate to characters that have complex and contrasting characteristics, and to understand and deal with themes like death. That, in my opinion, is what makes any children’s book a quality story – when authors don’t feel the need to over-simplify things, and when they trust that children are capable of a lot more complexity than we give them credit for. Also, it’s just a beautiful story of friendship and support. I enjoyed this very much.

  17. This is my first time reading Charlotte’s Web though I have heard of it for a lot of time when I studied American Literature. The book has successfully integrated many important life lessons for children such as friends, life and death, compassion and courage, without being too forceful and didactic. The story is also very well-written in a way that they took the readers on a journey and affect their emotions, bringing both laughters and tears. The language used in the book is so simple, and it tapped so closely to a children’s mindset. Here’s my favorite quote –
    “Why did you do all this for me?’ he asked. ‘I don’t deserve it. I’ve never done anything for you.’ ‘You have been my friend,’ replied Charlotte. ‘That in itself is a tremendous thing.”

    This book also got me to think what makes a book classic. Maybe timeless and enjoyable content? It seems that many other children books could achieve this. A well-crafted book? There are many other well-crafted children books that are easily ignored after a few generations. I’m not sure about the answer, but I’m looking forward to hearing more in class.

  18. Hye Jeong (Lena) Jeong says:

    One of my favorite memories from elementary school was reading this book with my classmates as a Readers’ Theater. Having come to the States for the first time, I remember being very self-conscious about reading aloud in English; the vivid narrative and dialogues provides an opportunity for English Learner students to practice speaking in English. So many different perspectives are offered, such as Fern and Avery. As a Language & Literacy student, I feel that the book is so meaningful in that it can be accessible to all students, even those that may struggle with English. With overarching themes such as life and death, the book is relevant to all readers.

  19. I’ve really enjoyed reading the posts, it’s such a special book! I think I was 8 when I first read Charlotte’s Web, and have also used it in the classroom many times. Interestingly, in recent years some children have been more affected by Charlotte’s death at the end and are surprised by it – shocked even. I wonder if this is because of the number of films and stories with ‘happy ever after’ endings? I would be interested to know what others think. Also, I would like to know how people have discussed the theme of death with children of various ages. The circle of life is beautifully portrayed through the seasons and nature and mating seasons of the animals; like other students, I feel I have a deeper understanding and appreciation of the tenderness of the story, having read the article about E.B. White.

  20. This was the first time I’ve read Charlotte’s Web, and I may have slipped into teacher mode while reading parts of it. Like Nezile, I couldn’t help but notice some of its ‘teachable moments’ around literacy. I recently read a Lemony Snicket book and was impressed by how he introduced readers to more difficult vocabulary. In Charlotte’s Web, readers are exposed to words like “radiant” and “versatile”. I liked the brief focus on spelling (“it’s tee double ee double rr double rr double eye double ff double eye double see see see see see”) and the idea that words can be very powerful (in this case, saving a life).

  21. Mahima Bhalla says:

    This was the first time I read Charlotte’s Web and I truly enjoyed this classic! E.B. White’s writing wonderfully engrosses you in the world of animals, so much so that you start personifying them in your own head (identifying human traits/attributes) and feeling for them. While for many people, a spider’s death may not seem a big deal, but Charlotte’s death at the end of the book leaves us with a bittersweet feeling. As my classmates have pointed out, this tale explores several layers, such as that of social justice, animal rights, friendship, loneliness, and life and death. This book can definitely be a great resource for discussing such topics with young children. It could also help develop empathy, perspective taking and love for animals. I loved the relationship between Charlotte and Wilbur, and the portrayal of selfless love and kindness towards another being. I believe this book offers meaningful lessons for both children and adults.

  22. I haven’t read Charlotte’s Web since I was very young — I remembered living it then, but reading it as an adult has made me much more aware of its nuances and its beauty. Kate DiCamillo quoted E. B. White in her foreword, noting how much he just loved things: “All that I hope to say in books, all that I ever hope to say, is that I love the world.” I sensed this love so deeply while rereading the book, and its power comes in his ability to impart this same fondness and appreciation for the world onto the reader. This book is fun and tender, bright and intense, and encourages readers of all ages to connect with the characters and reflect on their relationships with others. It is, as Lolly said, truly deserving of its status.

  23. “Charlotte’s Web” has reminded me of another class project that my classmate has been working on this semester focusing on how children interpret trauma in their books. It is quite interesting reading the various ways the posts above have reacted to the complex and difficult situations brought up in the plot and character relationships. I think the language that Charlotte uses throughout the book when speaking to Wilbur is particularly interesting, specifically around the topic of empathy and compassion. From my understanding of those topics, Charlotte feels empathy for Wilbur’s predicament(s) and then her actions of writing with her web reflects her compassion towards changing that situation. Therefore, I would love to hear from others on how they might utilize these lessons about trauma and empathy/compassion in their classroom.

  24. While reading Charlotte’s Web, I realized that I had come across the story in German as a child and still remembered its contents. It was so interesting to read the book again, in its original language, as an adult. The relationships between the characters – humans as well as animals – are very special in this book and lead to important topics such as friendship, loss but also how to find happiness again. I liked the fact that Fern has access to both worlds and makes the reader see what is going on in the barn every day. This book offers a lot to a young reader.

  25. Sophie Mortner says:

    I too remember reading this book as an elementary student and putting on a play adaptation in early middle school. While it has been many years since I’ve interacted with this story, I was surprised by how much I remembered. It is one of a select few stories that has stayed in my memory. Reading it this time, as a teacher and adult, I noticed the many teachable moments that I would not have realized as a child. For one, the book is full of rich vocabulary that I can imagine planning lessons about using context clues to discover the meaning of these big words. I loved getting the opportunity to read this story again and I am excited to implement it into curriculum when I return to the classroom next year!

  26. Medina Roshan says:

    The line of the Smithsonian article that I was most struck by was White’s own analysis that: “‘This boy felt for animals a kinship he never felt for people.'” His affinity for animals and the natural world makes sense, given his history of being a sickly young boy and being painfully shy in general. Animals and nature, in a way, are much more low-stakes than humans. Indeed, the author asserts that he used this preoccupation as a shield of sorts. He even had trouble expressing his love for his wife and did it through comparison to a spider. How wonderful that he was able to adapt and use this product of his shyness to impart such a gift upon the world, particularly with “Charlotte’s Web” — a favorite of many children and adults to this day.

  27. Kiran Bhai says:

    It was such a treat to read “Charlotte’s Web” again as an adult. Rereading the book, I had a greater appreciation for E. B. White’s intricate details of the characters and the scenery of the idyllic farm life. Even as an adult, this book was heartwarming and reminded me of the importance of reading this book with children and in school. As commented earlier, this piece makes readers reflect on themselves and their relationships and is done in a beautiful way.

  28. I was impressed by the friendship between Charlotte and Wilbur. Sometimes, the relationship between animals is more sincere then that of human beings’. This reminds me of a recent news. A 25 year-old young girl, Ge was stabbed to death by her best friend’s ex boyfriend. However, this best friend, Xin was just indoors when Ge was outside the room killing by her Xin’s boyfriend. What’s worse, Xin did not feel any regret or shame of not helping Ge. When I read this book, I feel a simpler and natural feeling among animals, so refreshing.

  29. Stephen MacLellan says:

    I found the Smithsonian article about E.B. White to be a fascinating backstory on this author. It is always interesting to think about how the authors of children’s books think, and act, and are inspired. It often makes some sense when an author who so deeply can identify with children and animals may not readily connect with adult humans. I also never made the connection between The Elements of Style and this White. I am now interested in reading some of his New Yorker articles, to see if there how he writes for both adults and for children. I originally read Charlotte’s Web when I was a very young child, so rereading it now was basically a first read for me. His descriptions and portrayals of the characters are deep and layered, and I can see why this is such a classic text.

  30. This was my first time reading Charlotte’s Web and I thought it was great because it reminded me of all the important things in life like true friendship, having purpose and being part of something larger than ourselves and standing up for those who don’t have a voice. White’s description of nature made me slow down and be grateful for the beauty surrounding me –winter and all.

  31. This is my first time reading Charlotte’s Web. E.B.White really has a knack of drawing readers to the story. I find myself feeling down when Wilbur was rejected by goose, sheep and others in his pen, but lifted up when Charlotte promised to be his friend. I also like how White portraits Fern as a pure human being, befriending with an animal that’s a bit unconventional (rather than a dog, kitten or bunny). Honestly, I read the book more from an adult’s point of view and relate the storyline with real-life situations. I’m really curious how kids would take it differently, will they notice the subtlety behind the seemingly straightforward storyline?

  32. I read Charlotte’s Web later in life, at the age of 15 and loved it. I had grown up with the 1970s animated film, and its themes regarding the ‘circle of life’ have resonated with me since the age of 3. One thing that struck me in this go-around, however, are the antiquated gendered relationships. Wilbur, though loveable, is a “mediocre man” who is propped up by the emotional and physical labor of a much wiser and capable woman. He reaps the rewards of her efforts… then she gives birth and dies. <_<

    I don't think White is saying "this is what womanhood is now and forever" but I did find it to be an interesting illustration of traditional gender roles and implicit expectations.

    Also, I don't know if I've related to a character as much as I have Templeton the Rat.

  33. Reading Charlotte’s Web reminded me of the stories that my grandmother would narrate to me growing up. These stories were a part of her tradition’s oral history, and they often featured friendships between people, plants and animals. There was always a sense of unity in her stories, and an understanding that while life is often a struggle for all, we can always rely on goodness – and good companionship, to pull through. This theme resonated very clearly in Charlotte’s Web. I enjoyed E.B. White’s characterization of animals, which awarded them a sense of character and agency, and therefore a relatability to the reader. His tender portrayal of how the characters felt and interacted with each other was also particularly touching.

  34. I loved this book and agree with my peers who point out Charlotte’s Webb is a children’s book, that people of all ages can appreciate. I tend to place it in category of children’s novels with books like A Day No Pigs Would Die, My Family and other Animals, and Animal Farm, although there are vast differences, there’s some reoccurring themes. In addition, I found Schama’s Smithsonian piece about E.B. White really cool because it brought in bit and pieces of the author’s life and budding relationship with nature. In thinking about the lake house, I remember and essay from the Best American Essays of the Century compilation, called “Once More to The Lake”. Also, as a lifelong New Yorker, I often references his famous piece “Here is New York” which still resonates today. He truly loved animals, but to call compare him to Thoreau, may have been a stretch 🙂

  35. Camila Garcia Enriquez says:

    Charlotte’s Web is a story that I did not grow up reading because it is not part of my country’s culture, but I had had the opportunity to watch the movie when I was a kid.
    Reading the actual novel now was an amazing experience: I am not a literacy specialist and I feel I can only comment on the value of the story and its messages, but not necessarily the literary form.
    I feel this is one of those stories that are relevant past the time of their publication. I love how empathy and friendship are explored here, and the value that is placed on verbal messages to save Wilbur. I also found it telling to show that it is animals savings themselves here, with people being the menace. It is even more revealing to me to see that it was not that Wilbur’s owner started to grow fond of Wilbur, considered him a pet, or even cared for Wilbur’s feelings that Wilbur avoided being slaughtered, but instead the fact that Wilbur appeared to have value.

  36. Arlyn Madsen-Bond says:

    I always loved Charlotte’s Web! I especially enjoyed rereading it as an adult.

    I read this blog about adults rereading children’s books: https://www.forbes.com/sites/booked/2010/06/28/charlottes-web-the-bfg-why-adults-read-childrens-books/#54d6ba815cbd

    One quote that I really resonated with was “I guess that is another mark of a good book–every time you read it, you glean something new. I was close to tears when Charlotte finally died all alone at the empty fairground. It wasn’t her death that got to me, like it did back in grade school. It was the the fact that she was alone that did.”

  37. Jen Curtis says:

    Like many students in the class, I was introduced to Charlotte’s Web as a child. My mom read it aloud to me, and remains a passionate E.B. White fan. For this reason, I was so excited to return to the book. I was surprised at how slowly I read the book, however. There were so many moments I was converted into a lazy reader, wanted to skip over sections, despite the fact I normally savior long descriptions. The book is undoubtedly beautiful, and the character of Charlotte sharp and wise, but the plot itself was quite slow for me, and I found myself wondering how engaging it would be for students today. Perhaps it had something to do with the farm setting, but it felt much more dated than the other books on the syllabus.

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