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Charlotte’s Web | Class #6, 2016

Charlotte's WebDuring our last class meeting, we will be holding six mock book award sessions. There are four 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 think of it as our dessert book. While most of the students have already read it, most years about a third of them 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 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 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.

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  1. Christina Simpson says:

    I found the article about E.B. White fascinating. His connection to animals and nature comes through clearly in Charlotte’s Web, and I think Michael Sims is right in saying that White could “animate a splash of sunlight” beautifully. White’s characters feel very genuine, and I think his fascination with nature allowed him to create such compelling characters. While I had read Charlotte’s Web as a child, this was the first time I have re-read it as an adult. Charlotte is so articulate, and I was struck by the amount of information she shared throughout the book – from vocabulary words to information about spiders. I definitely enjoyed having the opportunity to re-read Charlotte’s Web!

  2. Elizabeth Dorr says:

    I just loved this book as a kid but hadn’t revisited it in years. The story rang just as true and moving as it did many years ago. Reading this time, I felt more attuned to the human and adult elements of the story, rather than the animal plot line. I particularly loved the insight about how Fern is the only one who can hear the animals speak and that there’s a certain magical wonder and wisdom that both children and animals can possess far beyond what adults are capable of or what we’ve lost over time. One part I didn’t remember at all was Fern abandoning Wilbur by the time of the fair in favor of spending time with boys, and I found this almost sadder than Charlotte and Wilbur’s relationship.

  3. Mariel Perlow says:

    I have a sentimental place in my heart for Charlotte’s Web from my childhood reading it and watching the animated film, and also using it as a class read-aloud as a teacher. Paired with the article about E.B White, I am fascinated to learn of some of the ways our dedicated author found creativity and inspiration- especially by allowing spiders to hatch in his home. In re-reading Charlotte’s Web this time around, I became especially aware of Templeton’s role as the anti-hero. Though this character has normally been a source of comedy for myself and my students, I found a new appreciation for the fact that, though he did not always want to make the right choice and be helpful, he was arguably the most reliable character.

  4. Kate Cunningham says:

    I am a huge fan of E.B. White’s writing, and the way he conveys sweet, non-preachy insights about death, friendship and growing up in Charlotte’s Web. I totally concur with Elizabeth’s point about noticing the human relationships far more during this reading than I did as a child. I had the same reaction about Fern abandoning Wilbur for Henry Fussy and wasn’t sure how I felt about the romantic overtones (she’s only 8!!) I particularly noticed the dynamics between Fern and her mother this time around and was not a huge fan of Mrs. Arable. I didn’t remember anything about the Arables before re-reading, so I was surprised when Mr. Arable, who had initially been intent on killing Wilbur, ended up becoming a much stronger supporter of Fern’s interest in the animals than her mother. On the other hand, Mrs. Arable was worried that Fern’s interest in the animals was not “normal,” but was unconcerned by Avery’s (sometimes destructive) behavior. I wonder whether E.B. White was intentional in this presentation of the father/daughter and mother/son relationship.

  5. Jacqueline Scherr says:

    I really enjoyed the article about E.B. White! I am not surprised that he had a love of animals. As others have mentioned, it definitely comes through in his writing. I found it interesting that he compared his love interests to various animals whether it be through poems or compliments. The spider story mentioned in the article provided some insight to E.B.’s actual experience with animals, even if just a spider. I loved the book Charlotte’s Web as a child and I loved reading it again. I remembered the general plot line, but the details and relationships between characters were fascinating to reread. I found the ending very touching. Particularly when Wilbur names his three new spidering friends after Charlotte dies. I also enjoyed how many Wilbur continued to have a special bond with spiders, as shown through his continuing friendships with them as the years went on.

  6. Tom Grasso says:

    After reading the article on E.B. White, I was so fascinated by all the background information that informed his writing of the book. Like others have posted, I read the book as a child and remember being wrapped up in the plot. But rereading the book as an adult, I, too, was much more attuned to the relationships and dynamics among the different characters, both the humans and animals. As Christina noted, the level of vocabulary and information provided by Charlotte, and by the book in general, is pretty extraordinary for a children’s book.

    After reading the Schama article, I was so intrigued by E.B. White that I searched the internet and found another article written by NPR’s Melissa Block (link is provided below). One thing that struck me in Block’s article was White’s granddaughter Martha’s speculation that the author may have written the book, in part, as a tribute to his wife: “I found myself wondering today whether my grandfather was in some way writing an appreciation of his wife.” Martha draws some parallels between Charlotte and White’s wife stating, “Because Charlotte is loyal, and true, and a good writer. … Many of the words he uses to describe Charlotte certainly have been true of his wife.” I was struck by this because it was so similar to the anecdote recounted in the Schama article in which White wrote a letter to his wife—upon learning that she was pregnant with their first child—from the perspective of their pet dog Daisy. It seems as though E.B. White had some type of magical gift to feel things deeply and express those feelings in his writing through his relationship to animals and nature.

    Block article: http://www.npr.org/2008/08/04/93263496/charlotte-a-cavatica-bloodthirsty-wise-and-true

  7. Sammie Herrick says:

    I loved this book the second time around just as much as the first. I love everything I have ever read by E.B. White, but especially Charlotte’s Web. Reading the article, I was so excited to find out that E.B. White loves animals so deeply. I also feel a similar draw to animals, which is partly why I adore this book so much. To know that this wasn’t just fiction for E.B. White, but that he actually feels this love towards other living things makes this book all the more special for me. Although I love the little drawings that are dispersed throughout the book, they are not even needed with White’s writing. I have such a strong vision of every scene, every character, and every place in this book because of the detailed writing style. I also feel very connected to the characters because he makes their feelings and being as a whole, feel extremely genuine. I will always love this book, and I’m very glad I got to take a break from finals to read it again!!

  8. Dominique Donette says:

    I actually never read Charlotte’s Web as a child, sad, I know 🙁
    I saw the movie and was intrigued by the story but I didn’t pick up the book and wish I had. I felt quite emotional reading it, each chapter left me with so much uncertainty about the fate of Wilbur, the drama between friends and the looming possibility of Fern’s father making an executive decision. There’s a lot of duality in this book and although written for children, the themes are quite advanced. I was struck by the ease with with E.B White wrote about death and life so fluidly. An example of this is when Charlotte is dying and worried about her egg sac and he commits to looking after it. Even though those spiders hatch and eventually die too he is thankful to have an ever steady stream of friends. I was moved by the simplicity of this book’s language and the beautiful story of friendship. Great read!

  9. Joanna Craig says:

    Sammie wrote that Charlotte’s Web “wasn’t just fiction for E.B. White, but that he actually feels this love towards other living things.” I found that statement to be extremely insightful, as well as highlighting something interesting that my discussion group has touched on multiple times throughout these past few weeks. Most of the books we have read have animals as the main characters, and it seems that the reasoning behind this might be because it makes it easier for all children to relate to the books, rather than excluding certain children who do not look or sound like a human character. We also hypothesized that perhaps children simply like animal characters better – and after reading Charlotte’s Web again, I think this second guess may in fact be more accurate. It is not difficult for children to sympathize with animals – in fact, they even sympathize with inanimate objects, like their toys or stuffed animals. The fact that E.B. White gave animals such intense character traits and had them deal with real, “human,” issues, perhaps makes the story more relatable to children than if humans themselves were dealing with the same things.

  10. Marty Ray says:

    I never read this book as a child or for that matter saw the movie but I realize it is so popular. I actually looked up who it lost the Newbery Medal to and discovered that it was ‘Secret of the Andes’ by Ann Nolan Clark. While the story is touching highlighting themes of friendship, loyalty and devotion, it also deals with complicated themes such as death and loss in a gentle yet unvarnished way. The balance and rhythm of the writing stand out as particularly exemplary.

  11. Gabby Cohn says:

    It had been years since I read this book. It was much sadder and enlightening than I remembered. I must have been focussed on other child-like characteristics the last time I read it (including the fantasy elements of the book). It was an honor to read this book again (with an adult perspective). The themes of loyalty, friendship and the circle of life definitely caught my intention. The author’s writing is absolutely engaging and beautiful. This book is one that can be read at all ages (and even multiple times throughout one’s life). It is a true classic. What a powerful way to end the semester!

  12. Sarah Cole says:

    So I was one of the unfortunate few who did not have the pleasure of reading this book as a child, but I’m so glad I had the opportunity to do so now. I feel like the word “charming” is overused, but that’s the word that comes to mind to describe this book. The characters are so sincere and the way E.B. White writes about them is so inviting. I found myself not wanting to stop reading. What’s great about this book is that it’s is extraordinarily compelling, but it also has lots of great vocabulary (words like, injustice and anesthetic come to mind). A teacher could easily pull vocabulary words from it and students might actually take the time to learn them, so they can better understand the story. It’s such a great book, and I can see why so many teachers use it– has so many lessons (much more far-reaching than vocabulary), which folks above me have described.

  13. Montserrat Cubillos says:

    I had not read—or heard of—Charlotte’s Web before coming to the US. I liked very much E.B. White’s literary style. I especially enjoyed how he sums up multiple events in one same sentence to provide the complete picture of a situation. Right at the beginning, for example, the book says: “Fern phoned and got her Aunt Edith, and her Aunt Edith hollered for Uncle Homer, and Uncle Homer came in from the barn and talked to Fern.” There are many of these ‘cluttered’ sentences that resemble oral more than written language, as if the story was originally a folk tale…

  14. adw200@mail.harvard.edu says:

    I have read this book every year for the past five years with my second grade reading groups and every time I grow to love it more! The language itself is beautiful and E.B. White’s unique writing style gives more food for thought upon each rereading. I love the way he makes endless lists of items, whether they be types of cars or the foods that Templeton indulges in, in order to paint a picture. I also had never appreciated until this rereading how the very first line of the book, “Where’s Papa going with that ax?” immediately grabs the reader and involves him/her in the story. In teaching writing this year, one of the suggested “initial hook” techniques was to begin with a question and Charlotte’s Web was listed as the foremost example of this. I had never thought of it as being a purposeful “technique”, though clearly it is, simply because E.B. White manages to make all of his writing seem so effortless.

  15. Megan Wilhelm says:

    When I saw Charlotte’s Web on the syllabus, I called home and had my mom mail me my old copy so that I could read the same pages as an adult that I had loved as a child. The book no longer has its jacket–it was so love-worn that it fell to pieces a long time ago. Charlotte’s kindness and wisdom rang just as true this time as it did years ago. Reading Charlotte’s Web again was somewhat bittersweet as the recurring theme of time and the changes it brings felt very relevant to the experience of wrapping up this academic year. Like Elizabeth, I too had not noticed Fern’s abandonment of Wilbur at the fair when I was younger. Reading it this time around, I think this part of Fern’s character development, though sad, fits well with E.B. White’s compassionate yet matter-of-fact approach to the passage of time.

  16. Sophie Blumert says:

    I’ve really enjoyed reading the article describing the origins of E.B. White’s story and how he came to write Charlotte’s Web. It is clear from reading this article that he wanted the love he had for animals in his childhood to come through in the tone of this book. Replicating a childlike wonder in a book such as Charlotte’s Web is not easy, especially when dealing with topics that a tougher to talk about. I also very much agreed with Joanna’s comment that children may have a better time coping with issues like death because of the use of relatable animal characters. Using animals is such a useful tool for inclusion and embracing personality over physical appearance, and E.B. White does this brilliantly in Charlotte’s Web.

  17. Anthony Capone says:

    I really enjoyed reading this again as an adult. As a child, I remember being saddened by Fern having to give up Wilbur and also by the thought of Wilbur being killed and turned into bacon. As an adult reader, I found myself less struck by these feelings and more focused on how Charlotte’s actions could be used to teach kids empathy and advocacy in the interest of others. I think it would also be interesting to start a discussion about what the term “legacy” means, relating it to the lasting affect that Charlotte had on Wilbur and the offspring who learned about her through Wilbur.

  18. Madeline Loughridge says:

    I definitely agree with all that has been said about the article on E.B. White and his fascination with animals. I think that this really speaks to the importance of authenticity – would he have written such a wonderful book if he had not been so interested in animals? This is important to remember when working with students and asking them to complete writing tasks or read a book – How will you get their best work? It will most likely be when they are doing something that they find interesting and that has a true purpose.

  19. Caroline Holkeboer says:

    I read Charlotte’s Web in elementary school, but only had vague recollections about its plot and vivid characters. It was really great to re-read the story through a more mature lens, which I think gave deeper meaning to the themes of death and friendship throughout the book. As others have mentioned, I really enjoyed reading the article on E.B. White, which provided me with new insights into his love for animals and some of his decisions about incorporating spiders, pigs, and mice into his books. I found the story about relocating with a spider’s web in tow back to the city particularly funny and enlightening!

  20. Erin King says:

    I agree with what what many people have said so far. I also enjoyed revisiting Charlotte’s Web. I had not read it since I was in elementary school, and I was excited to read it again as an adult. This time around, I better understood the themes portrayed in the story. The theme of friendship is the most powerful for me as a reader– seeing how Charlotte and Fern are able to save Wilbur show young readers how even sometimes seemingly powerless individuals such as children (and in this case, a spider) can have lasting impacts on people’s lives.

  21. Allison Bishop says:

    I love E.B.White’s characterization in Charlotte’s Web. From the character-istics-istics-istic speech of the geese to the only-out-for-himself Templeton, the characters are truly themselves. I have not read this story since I was young, and I was struck on the reread by how much Charlotte’s words truly describe Wilbur. From the first “some pig” to the final “humble”, Wilbur’s character inflates. How Charlotte knows her vocabulary so well (for a spider, she’s remarkably adept at English) is never explained. But the themes she surfaces (as others have already mentioned) of friendship, death, and the passage of time provide plenty of material for us to dig into.

  22. John Travis says:

    Like many other readers, it was a pleasure to return to return to a book I had read as a child with a new set of eyes, while still trying to read it again as a child. One thing that I was struck by was how clearly this book captures something that Lolly spoke on early this year and that we saw as well with the illustrations in Feathers when Sarah Brannen came to us. Great books come from a place deep inside the author, where they are channeling something that is essential, true, and profound to them. In the attached essay, we were able to see how deeply meaningful animals and their lives were to E. B. White, and that shows in his writing in this book. He’s not simply writing a story personified with animals, he is writing ABOUT the lives of animals as someone who loves them. It gives a level of depth to the characters that would likely be lost otherwise and helps make for a timeless classic read.

  23. Heewon Yang says:

    It’s interesting to see how this was a favorite for many when they were young.  I’m one of few who did not enjoy this book as a child.  I read it because it was required reading for school but was not at all intrigued by the characters, writing, or plot of the story (maybe because I had a fear of spiders and the fact that a spider, Charlotte, was a heroine of the story influenced my childhood aversion to this book).  Thus, have not picked it up at anytime after my first encounter of the book.  Re-reading it as an adult, though, has led me to appreciate the work.  I can see the intricacy of the prose, the cafeful interweaving of factual information into the story, touching relationship of the protagonists., and mature themes. These are all components that many young readers may not be able to catch but those which adults can easily recognize.

  24. Jason Brown says:

    I remember reading this book in the advanced reading group of my 2nd grade (I think?) class. I was very frustrated with the book, as I remember struggling to understand its meaning. Thus I’ve always had a poor view on this classic, despite never fully reading it. Thus when I taught elementary school, I heavily avoided it, as I didn’t want these bad feelings to resurface. Now that I re-read it, and thankfully understand it this time, I am eager to use it in my classroom. I could even see using the article as a pre-reading technique with this book. It was interesting to hear the author’s intense fascination with animals and then using them in his two most famous books- Charlotte’s Web and Stuart Little! I knew nothing about E.B. White before reading the article, despite the popularity of his books.

  25. Andrew Bauld says:

    Like everyone, I love “Charlotte’s Web” so I won’t fill up space heaping acclaim. i do want to highly recommend the full book mentioned in the essay. I read it a few years ago, and it’s one of those stories that just heightens a historical character’s standing. It seems so often I read a biography and am disappointed by the truth, but E.B. White really was an amazing person behind the books. He was incredibly humble and shy, and one of my favorite stories was how he used to slip out of the offices of The New Yorker by the fire escape to avoid strangers.

  26. Kaitlin Herbert says:

    I’ve been lucky enough to read Charlotte’s Web several times throughout my life. I read it as a child, reread it in a Children’s Lit class in college, read it as a read aloud for 3rd graders and finally reread it again now! Each time I read it, I find it more enjoyable, particularly the tender moments between Charlotte, Fern and Wilbur. I enjoyed Anthony’s comment discussing legacy and how character actions have the ability to sum up one’s life. While the characters are animals, EB White’s love of animals made the characters appear human.

  27. Robin Kane says:

    I really enjoyed reading all of the comments on this post. I’m not surprised at how many people love this book and have such strong feelings about the characters and about the writer, E.B. White. I read Charlotte’s Web as a child, and many times as a teacher, but my favorite readings were those I shared with my daughters. This remarkable story is even more enjoyable when read out loud, which is what I did with my children. Although my daughters were all several years apart, each one listened with rapt attention and begged me to read “just one more page” when time for reading was over.
    As both a teacher and a parent, I appreciate the rich language in the book which bolsters children’s vocabulary and acts as a springboard for deep discussions about loyalty, friendship, and bravery. I totally agree with Montserrat in that the writing reads like oral language, making it feel authentic and genuine.

  28. Kara Lawson says:

    I will simply add to the overwhelming admiration expressed in previous posts for this beautiful book. I’ve read Charlotte’s Web many times in my life, including every fall with the past five third grade classes I’ve taught. Though I had read it with a small guided group of readers before that, I’ve found this to be an extraordinary story that is at its very best when heard aloud and celebrated as a community; my class cherishes this book every year. As students gather at the carpet, I’m grateful that we can experience this magical story of life, death, and friendship together. I always struggle reading aloud the final two chapters… inevitably, I cry every time, as do some of the children, but this is part of the what makes the book so profoundly radiant. E.B. White, who could “animate a splash of sunlight,” makes us feel so deeply. This assignment peaked my interest to learn more of the backstory of Charlotte’s Web, and as I kept digging I was fascinated to learn from an All Things Considered piece that even E.B. White himself, when he recorded the audiobook in 1970, had trouble getting through that scene. “He broke down — just as I did,” recalled audiobook producer Joe Berk in a 1991 NPR interview. “We did 17 takes. … We went on a short walk, and he turned to me, and he said, ‘It’s ridiculous: a grown man reading a book that he wrote, and being unable to read it aloud because of tears.’” It’s not ridiculous at all.

  29. Iliana Gutierrez says:

    In taking this class and reading so many new picture books, I’ve come to appreciate the notion of “sacred words” as a theme that recurs in some of the stories. _Dave the Potter_, for example, captures that special reverence for expression through language. It’s a theme I don’t think I would have noticed as a child. In rereading Charlotte’s Web, I felt that magic of words–“SOME PIG” and “TERRIFIC”– and was deeply impressed by the idea of these words woven into Charlotte’s web and how they could have the power to transform so many lives. It’s true that the magic could just be in the “miracle” of being written out in a web, but I feel like it means so much more than that. It captures the power of words to create an impact. Woven into her web, SOME PIG and TERRIFIC seemed to capture both the ephemerality and the lasting significance of words. Before rereading this story, I never would have thought of Charlotte as a writer, but it’s clear to me that she is.

  30. Soujanya Ganig says:

    Unlike many I hadn’t read Charlotte’s Web when I was growing up. And once I grew up, while I always knew that it was one of the classics, I never came around to reading it because I thought the book was about a girl named Charlotte and her experience with a spider. My snap judgement about the book prevented me from ever picking up the book. But I am so glad that this book was on the reading list. I was on an emotional roller-coaster ride while reading the book and thought it was one of the most beautiful and touching stories I have ever read and know that I will revisit this book many times in my adult life. And one thing I kept wondering while reading the book was how young readers would react to some of the information in the book. But then I am reminded of a beautiful quote we came across in the readings for the first class which talked about how children feel emotions more deeply because they have not yet developed the defense mechanisms that adults develop in the growing up years. Hence, while this book can be enjoyed even in adulthood, its impact can be best felt by a child in those growing up, most innocent years.

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