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Charlotte’s Web | Class #6, 2015

Charlotte's WebDuring our last class meeting, we will be holding four mock book award sessions. There are two Caldecott groups and one each for Geisel and Sibert. Check out the books they have nominated here and tell us which one would get your first vote.

Charlotte’s Web has been my last class reading assignment for several years, and I call it our dessert book. While most of the students have already read it, I usually find that about a third haven’t, particularly those who didn’t grow up in the U.S. It also fits in with our award theme that day because it did not win the Newbery (though it was an honor book).

If this was your first read, what did you think? Did it live up to its reputation as a classic? If this was a re-read, what did you notice this time that you might have missed before?

We’re also reading an article about E. B. White from the Smithsonian Magazine website that sheds some light on the origins of this book. Rather than dividing up this week’s reading, let’s 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.



  1. Lindsey Bailey says:

    I found the article about White to be really illuminating – it strikes me that he used animals as characters not just because he wanted to entertain children, but because they spoke to (and for) him so clearly. Perhaps this is why Charlotte’s Web works so well – because it was born of White’s attraction to and connection with the animals that inspired it and who populate it (meaning they are particularly genuine characters, not just personalities forced into animal’s bodies.) Then again, Fern and the other human characters were also beautifully written. Thoughts on this?

  2. Samantha Song says:

    I found the anecdotes about E.B. White’s connection to animals and nature deeply fascinating, especially the letter to his pregnant wife written in their dog’s voice. I agree with Lindsay in that his past tells so much about his talent to speak on animals’ behalf, rather than a forced personification. Despite being extremely introverted, his ability to capture both human nature and if you will, animal nature beautifully may be because he was deeply empathetic to the world as a whole and as an observant writer, was able to draw a personality from anything, just particularly poignantly in animals.

    I think the last time I read this book was in elementary school, so I don’t recall much about the text itself, just the basic story line. But as an adult, I can appreciate some of the subtle humor so much more as well as the literary elements; as a child I was simply just taken by the animal protagonists.

  3. Nicole Eslinger says:

    White’s connection with nature certainly shines through in this text – the language used to describe the animals and scenery is incredibly descriptive for a children’s book. It is interesting that White drew upon actual experiences with animals to create the plot. To Lindsey’s point, I think this might also add to the genuineness of the characters in the story.

    Re-reading this book as an adult, I was struck by the amount of information that is provided throughout the story line. From vocabulary words to the anatomy of a spider’s leg, this book is quite informative for young readers. I could imagine using the text as a springboard to introduce other topics, such as a biology or vocabulary unit.

  4. Gek Keng says:

    Like the other commenters, I found the article on E.B. White enlightening, and I do agree that his connection to animals helped him write a really compelling story.

    I’ve read Charlotte’s Web repeatedly as a young child, and only had happy emotions after reading it, and that was probably because I was delighted by all the talking animals. Re-reading it again made me feel sadness at some parts of the story (e.g. Charlotte’s passing, her children leaving), but I’m not sure whether to ascribe it to nostalgia or over-sentimentalism on my part.

    Reading it as an adult also made me realize how profound, knowledgeable, and articulate Charlotte was. I also realized that she embedded scientific information into her conversations, such as the parts of a spider – I completely agree with Nicole, this would be great to introduce a biology unit!

  5. Sara Gordon says:

    I had no idea about these details of E.B. White’s life and work, so I found this article helpful and interesting. His connection to animals was so strong and I didn’t realize that it almost served as a replacement for his connection with people. Reading the article, I couldn’t help but think about the fact that “Charlotte’s Web” is most likely to be the first book that most children read in which they encounter death, much like Bambi is often the first movie, which puts an enormous responsibility on White to be sensitive while still being honest and not “sugarcoat” the impact of death. I found the last few sentences particularly powerful – in which White talks about how important it is for him to communicate to readers how much he loves the world, and that he has enormous respect for the animals he includes in his stories.

  6. Ben Johnson says:

    As I read Charlotte’s Web, I tried to think criticality about White’s prose, the illustrations, the book’s symbolism, how the book could be used for bibliotherapy, etc., but again and again, I kept losing focus. I was repeatedly drawn into the book’s story and constantly reminded of how important this book had been to me as a child. When I was younger, I would read this book four or five times a year. I loved it so much that I named my first dog Wilbur (he was a runt, just like the pig, and we rescued him from a kill-shelter). Put simply, I did not read it because it offered me deep lessons about life (although, in the end it did help me make sense of death and friendship), nor did I read it because of the symbolism, instead I read this book because the story was so wonderful and brought me so much joy.

    Ironically, trying to analyze this book reminded me of the importance of not trying to analyze everything. Somethings just need to be appreciated for the inherent happiness that they give you. I truly love this story and am so happy this class gave me another excuse to read it!

  7. Mary Winters says:

    I recall as a young girl my mom reading Charlotte’s Web to my sister and I- at only 4 or 5 years old, I think I was too young at the time to appreciate the book. I know Charlotte’s Web is heralded as a children’s classic, but I never had any fond memories or strong connection to the book. I remember my mom while reading the book, crying when Charlotte died and my reaction was, “Mom, it’s just a SPIDER”. Upon re-reading the book now, I realized it is such a beautiful story of friendship and kindness, and yes I’ll admit, the ending is pretty sad. I enjoyed reading this book, and think it’s definitely a great book to gently introduce children to the themes of life and death, or life and loss

  8. Geri Low says:

    This is my first time reading Charlotte’s Web and I was very impressed by its depth, the character development, the play with emotions and the many scientific facts woven neatly in the main storyline. The story reminded me a bit of Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree in which selfless altruistic giving is the main theme of the story. Having never read this book before, I felt that White had a remarkable way of writing a story that could appeal to both children and adults – with simple sentence structures, but extensive vocabulary and a well developed plot. I was very taken by the emotional ups and downs (even though they are experienced by animals) in the story and I feel that this could be a very good resource to teach children about emotions.

  9. Zohal Atif says:

    Like Geri this is my first time reading Charlotte’s Web and I am in love with the book. The article was very informative pre-read on the author. Since he was so creative in real life that he wrote a letter to his wife in his dogs voice expressing his feelings on their pregnancy, its no wonder he captured emotions and feelings in his fictional characters so beautifully. I was taken aback by the first couple of pages where Fern’s dad has taken an axe to kill the piglet. I wondered if that would be too much for child audience but reading further it became clear that E.B. White had no intention of sheltering the reader from realities of life. His portrayal of animals is done with so much wit and craft that they become real. On my commute home I couldn’t help but wonder what kind of barn animal the commuters around would make. I am enjoying every page of the story, a pleasant change from academic readings.

  10. Joshua Jenkins says:

    As I reread the book this time around, I was struck by the moment in the book that the reader realizes the animals have thoughts and talk. It’s so subtle that you nearly miss it. Wilbur’s first few days at the Zuckerman barn are so very stressful for the little pig–White inherently knew how important it was for us to feel that.

  11. Ying Xiang Lai says:

    Like Lindsey, the article made me realise that part of why White could write the animals so well—making the book so lovable—is because they “spoke to him so clearly”. More than that, he was probably so familiar with them that writing Charlotte’s Web was an extension of what he did in his everyday life, i.e. giving voices to animals for which he felt a kinship. Travers commented that any adult who read the book “is certain at last of dying young even if he lives to ninety” and re-reading the book did take me back to my childhood more than one sense: one, the experience of reading a book that I read as a child echoed the same experience many years ago; and two, the gentleness of the story spoke to the child inside of me.

  12. Stacey Kahn says:

    Reposting here because I think I made this original comment in the wrong spot!

    Reading Charlotte’s Web again was an emotional experience. On the one hand, I knew what was coming, though I hadn’t read the book (or seen the 1970s cartoon movie version) in years. On the other hand, I was reading this from an adult perspective for the first time, which I’ve found allows me to catch things and pick up on subtleties I didn’t obviously detect as a child. This second reading, for me, allowed me to appreciate how beautiful the quietness of the text is – even during the big events of the story, there is a subdued quality to the writing, perhaps even mimetic of Charlotte’s calm yet warm demeanor. E.B. White renders his characters lovingly while showing us how beautiful life is, even though, as Charlotte says, “we’re born, we live a little while, we die.” I don’t remember what my reaction to this was a child – I think I cried at the death of Charlotte, and reading this as an adult certainly made me sad about Charlotte again. But when I reached the end of this book, and cried, it wasn’t for Charlotte’s death. It was for how E.B. White so carefully touched on the beauty and fragility of living, and I thought of how this might be a such a gentle and appropriate conversation starter for that oft discussed topic of getting children acquainted with the notion of death. It was nice to meet my childhood self halfway in the reading of this book, and so a perfect way to end my reading experiences in this module. Thanks, Lolly and Maleka!

  13. Annie Thomas says:

    Reading the article in conjunction with Charlotte’s web shed light on the intricacies of this story. Because the animal characters are so developed in the book, it was interesting to learn about the deep way in which White felt he connected with them. It adds another dimension to the story. I wonder if he had specific people in mind when he wrote the characters. This has always been a difficult book for me to read, but I really enjoyed having the additional insight this time around.

  14. Kasey Michel says:

    I feel like at this point there is not much for me to add to the conversation, but will say that I really did treat this book as “dessert” this week; I took my time with it, sometimes after a few hours of pouring over scientific journal articles and sometimes prior to getting started on another assignment (cause sometimes you just have to do dessert first!). This was done not to analyze the use of literary devices or critically evaluate the characters but rather to delve into, and get the most out of, a story that has truly earned the “classic” label. So often a book is praised for being accessible to children while still being enjoyable for adults, but Charlotte’s Web goes that extra mile in connecting with teenagers as well. I’m going to be honest, I’m not usually the kind of person who returns to a book over and over again. I have a few that I have returned to and gotten different things out of at different points in my life, but I don’t think this is one I would have considered if not for this class. BUT’s whimsical and a bit satirical — I don’t think I truly appreciated the humor until this go around — and I look forward to reading it again and again for years to come. thank you, Lolly.

  15. Moses Kim says:

    I remember that the first time I read this book (way back in fourth grade, some ten years ago!), I didn’t question why the farmers paid more attention to Wilbur than to Charlotte: after all, the words may describe him, but she’s the one who writes them! Reading this again, with better insight on my own experiences building self-esteem, it struck me that there may be a message there: we put value on the words other people use to label us as well, and sometimes we become what we are called. Wilbur may only have been called “radiant,” but Charlotte allows the farmers to put faith in him–faith that ultimately turns out to be transformative. For me, this story ended up becoming a story about the power of belief and its ability to change lives for the better.

  16. Kara Brady says:

    I love the quote from the article, “Their basic writing mode is personification. E.B. White is that kind of writer; he could animate a splash of sunlight.” That’s so true! His writing elicits incredible imagery and life from his characters. I remember the general story of Charlotte’s Web, but I don’t actually remember sitting down and reading it. (That doesn’t really say much, as my memory before 6th grade is pretty sparse.) So, I really enjoyed reading it this time around! Mostly, I appreciated how seamlessly Charlotte’s character brings in learning vocabulary. Her dialogue with Wilbur is a constant learning opportunity for Wilbur and the reader. Besides vocabulary, readers also learn a lot about emotions and different ways of handling those emotions. Charlotte is in stark contrast to Wilbur when it comes to outwardly showing emotion. While Wilbur is quick to yell and cry, Charlotte is calm, collected, and uses her words to explain her feelings. I enjoyed this story and I can see how children would as well.

  17. Haneen Sakakini says:

    Having the opportunity go back and reread one of my childhood favorites for a class was an amazing opportunity to relive the simplicity of my childhood. This book brought back memories. A lot of my classmates mentioned how they didn’t want to go back and reread the end of this novel because they wanted to keep a hold of the beauty of this book. It is interesting as adults to go back and read a book where we can’t actually handle the ending, yet as kids we had the resilience to ush through and finish the book.

  18. Allison Bates says:

    This was such a nostalgic experience for me. This was not my first time reading Charlotte’s Web, but there were still so many elements to this story I was incapable of picking up as a child. The description of how a pig plans out his day is hilarious… “Eat. Nap. Dig. Stand still.” I loved reading the article after finishing the book. It was intriguing to realize how much E.B. White must have identified with Fern’s compassion for animals…. and how his regret about his own pig must have influenced Charlotte’s character arc. I love that this story can still grasp me as an adult. It makes me want to relive more of my childhood favorites.

  19. Rebecca Tan says:

    It is difficult to put into words what Charlotte’s Web did for me, when I first read it as a child. I am actually hesitant to re-read it as an adult, lest it take away how engaged I remember I was when I first read it. I remember that after reading it after, although I know the story was not a scary one, but it was so vivid that for days after I saw spider webs at night and when I closed my eyes. The illustration on the cover of the book, to me, is a really great depiction of the illcdic farm where Wilbur and Charlotte lived.

  20. Anderson says:

    I think that Charlotte’s Web is a classic. I have read it a number of times. The story makes people more sensitive to animals, while also marrying realism and fiction. There are elements of the book that children often experience, like death. It is great that the story included this element of loss for the readers, because children who experience death of loved ones will know what it is to remember the happier past times.
    I never knew anything about White before class article was assigned. It is interesting that he had such a deep connection to the animals…it is probably why the book has become a classic.

  21. Hannah Hanssens-Reed says:

    I appreciate the other comments highlighting E. B. White’s connection to nature and animals, and his showcasing of the delicate nature of life. I think what stood out to me – both through the reading of this book and through the course overall – was how much we, as adults, lose touch with our young selves and the eyes of a child. Reading this book, I could not understand why I did not remember being sad as a child, but I think it shows that often the “controversial,” “heavy”, or “shocking” parts of a book for adults are less noteworthy for children. What I did remember was the idea that perhaps animals do talk and communicate. Though I cried and was deeply affected re-reading this book, I also finished it feeling jaded by age, and aware that my way of reading this story today misses out on some of the magic of children’s eyes.

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