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Charlotte’s Web | Class #6, fall 2016

Charlotte's WebOur class won’t meet next Wednesday because of Thanksgiving, so this post is going up early.

During our last class meeting (November 30), we will be holding five mock book award sessions. There are three Caldecott groups and one each for Geisel and Sibert. Check out the books they have nominated here [link to come] and tell us which title in each list would get your first vote.

Charlotte’s Web has always 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, every year several 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. Even after all these years, I find it to be the pinnacle of excellence in this field.

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. We’ll discuss both the book and the article in the comments of this post.

 

Note: Students have been asked to research specific book creators and websites and add their findings in the comments.

  • Siyuan L. on Garth Williams
  • Katie S. on Randolph Caldecott (person and medal)
  • Lizz A. on Theodore Geisel (person and award)
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. There are many, many things that make this a wonderful book, but I think the interplay between life and death is a major part of why I personally love Charlotte’s Web. On one hand, the book is about all the things that make life worth living, including friendship and the beauty of nature. Yet at the same time, death is unequivocally at the heart of this book, as Charlotte strategizes to help Wilbur avoid the cruel fate faced by most spring pigs at Christmastime, and of course, has to face her own death.

    Why is Wilbur so terrified by the prospect of death? He wants to continue to “breathe the beautiful air and lie in the beautiful sun.” The book reminds us that life is beautiful and strange and complicated (“a spider’s life can’t help being something of a mess, with all this trapping and eating flies”), and that death is a difficult but natural part of what life means. Even Charlotte’s death can only happen after the completion of her egg sac; the book makes clear all the ways in which these two things we treat as opposites are actually inextricably linked.

    These are heavy themes for young readers. Yet teaching Charlotte’s Web never seems to encounter concerns on this front. Perhaps this is simply because it’s now such an accepted part of our culture, but I like to think this is because the book itself cautions readers not to underestimate children. Referencing mothers’ fears that children would hurt themselves on Zuckerman’s swing, the narrator notes, “But no child ever did. Children almost always hang onto things tighter than their parents think they will.” A fitting sentiment for the final book of this class!

  2. I have very fond memories of the animated movie, with its rousing chorus of “Zuckerman’s famous pig” and hilarious portrayal of the begrudging Templeton. But I don’t remember reading the book until I was older. The book ingrained in me a lot of perceptions I had about farm life; I remember being shocked that they were giving Wilbur a buttermilk bath. As Catherine said, the themes are about life and death and the course of nature. As a student in the Language and Literacy program, I also have to mention that the book is about the power of words, and fancy words at that (even “magnum opus”!).

    Re-reading it now, I’m struck by how grounded Charlotte is—unassumingly compassionate and giving, quietly intelligent and perceptive. I also find the exchange with Dr. Dorian to be hilarious. His casual perspective on child development is a funny counter to the overly concerned analysis of children that we sometimes see today. Finally, there is such a staggeringly wistful undercurrent, with Charlotte’s passing, the spiders who never knew their mother and had no attachment to the farm, and even Fern starting to grow out of childhood. Wilbur going from runt and constantly in need, to finding his own voice and command over language (even giving a welcome speech to the new spiders)—I can’t say enough about the beauty of this book!

  3. Randolph Caldecott, an English author and illustrator, was born in March 1846. He attended school until he was 15 years old, and one of his preferred childhood activities was drawing, which he continued to practice throughout his life. As he grew older, he illustrated novels, sketched his countryside surroundings, and even exhibited watercolors and sculptures in England. He is also well remembered for two children’s books, “The House that Jack Built” and “The Diverting History of John Gilpin,” which were originally published in 1878 but were reprinted annually at Christmastime until Caldecott died in 1886. Aside from being a talented artist, he was also a witty writer who illustrated scenes from his travels and captioned them with clever comments. This humor was evident in his drawings as well, marking his style of unique and engaging.

    Randolph Caldecott’s life and dedication to illustration are preserved in the annual awarding of the Caldecott Medal to a deserving picture book. The medal came into being after Frederic G. Melcher suggested in 1937 that the illustrators of children’s books should be recognized as much as the authors of the Newbury Medal. The terms are as follows: “[The medal] shall be awarded to the artist of the most distinguished American Picture Book for Children published in the United States during the preceding year. The award shall go to the artist, who must be a citizen or resident of the United States, whether or not he be the author of the text. Members of the Newbery Medal Committee will serve as judges. If a book of the year is nominated for both the Newbery and Caldecott Awards the committee shall decide under which heading it shall be voted upon, so that the same title shall not be considered on both ballots.”

    As a fun fact, the image on the Caldecott Medal is an illustration by Randolph Caldecott from the 1878 publication of “The Diverting History of John Gilpin.”

    A list of Caldecott winners and honors from 1938 to present can be located here: http://www.ala.org/alsc/awardsgrants/bookmedia/caldecottmedal/caldecotthonors/caldecottmedal

  4. Stone Dawson says:

    This was my first time reading “Charlotte’s Web,” and it was delightful throughout. As the article said, White is clearly a master of personification, but his ability to personify the various farm animals without taking away the qualities that separate them from people was most impressive to me. In addition to this difficult task, White tackles several complicated issues, such as death and growing up, in a way that is accessible for children without sacrificing anything of the narrative.

    While Fern may be the most prominent human child in the book and many children will relate to her, Wilbur works incredibly well as a device for writing about those emotions so many children feel but might be embarrassed of. He is uncertain of himself, easily scared of things he doesn’t understand, and knows perfectly well what he likes and what he doesn’t. But most of all, Wilbur is someone who needs a friend, and to me, that is what this book is all about, friendship in the face of fear, the unknown, and maybe even certain death.

  5. I had forgotten how much I loved this book as a child. What a delightful way to spend my Sunday morning!

    As mentioned in comments above, a reader might first identify with Fern, but soon, you’re thrust into the point of view of Wilbur through White’s skillful writing. Even rodents and bugs, unattractive animals that are thought of as “disease vectors” in our daily thought, become lovable creatures with personalities. White’s skill in personification in each and every farm animal is formidable. Wilbur is especially relatable; he is a like a small, curious child, interested in the world but also fearful all the same.

    Charlotte, a spider, could be unrelatable as a gross bug (sorry, I actually hate spiders), but White writes her in a delicate, motherly way. Yet you remember that she is inhuman, as she describes the biological components of her body and unflinchingly eats flies she captures and kills. But all the same, her sacrifices to her friend Wilbur are felt deeply by the reader, and we (even spider-haters…) form the same attachment to her. Her death is upsetting in a children’s story about the preservation of life, but adds a depth to it that isn’t present in so many other books about talking farm animals.

  6. I read Charlotte’s Web while growing up, and have felt an adoring attachment to the book ever since then. As I re-read my copy of the book this past week, over a decade after I first held it in my hands, its themes of friendship, growing up, and life & death, amongst others, felt particularly poignant, and I couldn’t stop turning my book’s now-yellowed pages. As I was reading Charlotte’s Web this time around, I appreciated its honesty now more than ever. I wondered what made reading this book feel so different—was it that I had now experienced firsthand the loss of loved ones? Was it the friendships that have filled my life since then? It also made me think about how we choose to define what books are “classics”—to me, Charlotte’s Web is a classic in its timelessness, the way it can be read again and again, with beauty still left to be uncovered each time.

  7. I’m so glad this book was assigned for the last class. Like Shaina I had forgotten how much I loved this book and now cannot wait to share it with my nieces and nephews when they grow older. I read this book while at home (a farm) over Thanksgiving break, giving it special meaning as I was surrounded by working animals. White’s work does a fantastic job of reminding us about the cycle of life and the importance of animals in that cycle.
    Although this book is often used to reflect on the cycle of life I think it is also useful as a classroom tool to teach the social-emotional lesson that small acts of kindness multiply within a community. I also think it is valuable in showing that even the “runt” or the humble creature can do great things or have great qualities.

  8. Garth Montgomery Williams (1912-1996) was a very famous American illustrator of children’s books. He illustrated several famous children’s books such as Stuart Little, Charlotte’s Web and Little House series.
    Gath Williams was born in New York city in 1912. His parents were both artists. When Gath was young, he always saw his parents either painting or drawing. In 1922 he moved to United Kingdom with his family. He first studied architecture and would like to become an architect. Later he came back to United States and tried to become a cartoonist. At the beginning of his career his works were rejected for several times. His first big success was the book Stuart Little. From then he started to work as a full-time illustrator of children’s books. He illustrated the famous book Charlotte’s Web in 1952 and also the Little House series during the 1950’s. Gath Williams died on May 10, 1996 when he was 84 at his home in Guanajuato, Mexico.

    The following link provides more information of Gath Williams.
    http://www.nytimes.com/1996/05/10/arts/garth-williams-book-illustrator-dies-at-84.html

  9. Melissa Christ says:

    What an marvelous book to save for our last class and include in our discussion! I too read Charlotte’s Web several years ago as a child. My experience this time was completely different as I shared the memorable book with my two oldest children. (The timing was perfect to share this classic over Thanksgiving break.)

    Reading the article on E.B. White prior to rereading Charlotte’s Web, intrigued me. White truly had a love for animals and nature, a special connection that is warmly felt through Charlotte’s Web. As Sims writes, White “became aware that animals were actors themselves, living there own busy lives, not merely background characters in his own little drama” in the woods and barn of his boyhood home in Mount Vernon, New York. Like Stone mentioned, White is a master of personification, but he is also able to personify the animals without taking away the qualities that separate them from humans.

    I’m thankful for the opportunity to read this book now through the lenses of an educator and parent. Multiple features stood out to me during this reading. For example, White incorporates in-text definitions throughout the book to explain vocabulary words that may be unfamiliar to children. However, these in-text definitions do not disrupt the flow of the storyline. In addition, like Alex, I think this book can be used as a tool to discuss social-emotional lessons, in addition to topics of friendship, life, and death. I agree with Emily D. who so eloquently said, “Charlotte’s Web is a classic in its timelessness, the way it can be read again and again, with beauty still left to be uncovered each time.”

  10. I remember reading Charlotte’s Web as a child, but I was an English Language Learner so I didn’t fully appreciate the language and vocabulary then. Re-reading it now, I, too, saw that the story was very much about the power of words. As Phil mentioned in his post, the words can be quite fancy and advanced. For Wilbur, words make a difference between life and death. Charlotte saves his life from impending doom by spinning positive words onto her web. The book teaches young readers about the importance of using words thoughtfully in ways that would “save” others instead of “kill” them.

    I also felt quite drawn to the story by both the hilarious human characters and the personified animal characters. The scenery descriptions are almost Victorian, as it paints a picture of an idyllic farm life. Another layer of complexity that the book conveys, which I hadn’t quite caught as an ELL child, is to live a full and meaningful life. While some animals live for simple pleasures, like the greedy Templeton who cares for nothing else but food, Charlotte endeavours “to lift up [her] life a trifle” by saving a friend’s life. As much as the book is about life and death, it is also about sacrifice and acts of kindness that are not calculated but are genuine and simple.

    Overall, it’s a wonderful book and I’m grateful that I got to read it again!

  11. I read this book in Chinese when I was a child, and it is a great opportunity to be able to re-read it in English. I didn’t have much impression beyond the plot of the story(how Charlotte helped Wilbur with her wisdom and sacrifice), but this re-read in English helps me appreciate the emotional depth of the characters and beautiful language more. I also listened to E.B White’s reading of his own work as well, and I would actually say that his voice is somehow quite different from what I expected. The other assigned reading gives an interesting background of the composition of the book, and I go on to read more about E.B White myself. His love poem to his wife Katharine Angell is a really interesting read.

  12. Katherine Hu says:

    Most of the comments above described exactly how I felt – this book has a certain level of depth that one would not expect to see in a book meant for kids. The theme of life and death/friendship are significant in this book, and I remember how sad I felt at the end of the book when I read it as a kid.

    There were a few things that I didn’t remember. The most important is probably the illustrations. They are so beautiful! I didn’t remember noticing them as a kid, but it really made reading this book beautiful. The other thing I noticed is that some parts of it are pretty funny! E.B white is so skilled at making this book appealing yet understandable, and incredible at personification!

  13. Emily Nadel says:

    I first read this book in elementary school, but when my students read it I realized I did not have many detailed memories of the story. Reading it with my students was like reading it for the first time, and I was surprise by how attached they became to the characters and how invested they became in the plot. Even though the human characters in “Charlotte’s Web” live culturally very different lives from my urban students, their emotions make them real and relatable.

    As mentioned in others’ posts, these emotions are intense yet beautifully conveyed and addressed. Students used the story as a schema for navigating their own emotions. These feelings became even more real when the students put on a play using pieces of the text as their script. Not only did students cry while reading, but also while watching their peers act! They were all sobbing when we played the movie at the end of the school year. “Charlotte’s Web” taps into what it means to feel and be human (even if you’re a pig or a spider) and presents it in a way that translates across mediums and ages.

  14. As everyone else has pointed out, it felt like a wonderful treat to get to revisit this book. I talked to my parents about it while I was home, and my mother pointed out that she first read it to me and my brother when my grandmother was about to undergo an operation because someone recommended it to her as being potentially helpful as an entree into mortality (rather than a children’s book in which a grandmother actually dies.)
    Shaina points out that Charlotte is given sympathetic qualities, but “you remember that she is inhuman.” I totally agree and think one of the loveliest things about this book is the inner life White gives these animals without simply making them anthropomorphic; one of my favorite details this time around was the loving, unsparing descriptions of Wilbur’s meals–Dickensian feasts for a pig, totally unappealing to human appetites. I read another article somewhere about how Williams originally wanted to illustrate Charlotte with a woman’s head, but White insisted that she look entirely like a spider. And speaking of Williams–I’m much more familiar with him from his illustrations of the Little House books. Plucky little Fern looked distractingly like a time-travelling Laura Ingalls to me in some places…but I do think his illustrations of the animals and particularly of the word-webs were wonderful and added so much to the story.

  15. Amanda MacMillan says:

    My thoughts echo those of Phil- I remember watching the animated movie of Charlotte’s Web over and over again during my childhood. However, my memory of reading the book is not as strong…I believe I was in lower elementary school (first grade, maybe?) when my teacher read it aloud to the class. Nonetheless, reading this classic now, as an adult, was a very emotional and thought-provoking experience. As Lolly has mentioned in class, sometimes our role as educators/publishers is to read books with a “child brain” and an “adult brain.” This is exactly what I tried to accomplish when reading- recalling what I remember from my childhood but also thinking about the text with all of the adult knowledge I have now. One major take-away and consistent thought that I have after reading is how this book could be used in a classroom for readers of various ages. The incorporation of animals as characters may make this book a great read aloud for young students, but the ideas of death, loss, and growing up may be themes that older children can discuss and explore. This text would also be an exemplar of rich writing techniques, such as personification, imagery, and conveying of complex emotions.

  16. I really enjoyed reading the Smithsonian article, How E.B. White Wove Charlotte’s Web, because it describes his fascination with animals and how they inspired his stories. I particularly enjoyed the story about how he was fascinated with spiders and took an egg sac back into the city with him to observe how the spiders developed. White’s fascination and appreciation for animals, and their independent nature really shines in Charlotte’s Web.

    I think some ways Fern personifies EB White himself, with her fascination and unique view of the animals. I really enjoyed the how this book breaks from reality, and allows the reader, and Fern, to enter the world of the barnyard animals. I thought it was interesting that because she was a child, and attune to the animals she was able to hear them. Yet, she was really a passive observer for most of the book.

  17. It had been a long time since I read this book; while I remembered the plot, I had forgotten the details of White’s beautiful writing. As many others have noted, White is able to explore big and sometimes heavy themes in a way that feels very natural and child-appropriate. This reread brought to mind the Serenity Prayer (which asks for “the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference”). Although the background of the prayer is theological, it is widely used in secular contexts such as Alcoholics Anonymous for its powerful and universal message. It seems to me that Charlotte quietly and thoroughly embodies these ideals, taking initiative to help save Wilbur’s life, but accepting her own death without struggling against it. Meanwhile, while we look up to Charlotte, we relate to Wilbur’s more emotional struggle with this acceptance. It is amazing to me how poignant White’s exploration of these ideas can be without weighing the book down or moralizing–in fact, most of the book is funny and playful. I echo the others here who appreciate its beauty and plan to revisit this book again and again.

  18. Monique H. says:

    Charlotte’s Web is a story that holds a special place in my heart. I remember it being one of the first chapter books I’d ever read. I also recall watching the animated version of the narrative, as other students have noted. E.B. White took such care to imbue his animal characters, especially Charlotte, with so much heart and humility. Being someone who is terribly afraid of spiders, I can say that Charlotte is, unequivocally, the only spider I’ve ever sympathized with. Her willingness to go above and beyond to help Wilbur at her own expense makes me think of Shel Silverstein’s “The Giving Tree”; another poignant story in the children’s literature canon. Overall, “Charlotte’s Web” is such a beautifully-told story and the illustrations throughout were lovely, as well.

  19. I haven’t read Charlotte’s Web before, or if I had, I don’t remember the story. So I spent the afternoon reading it today and I can really picture the barn, the animals, the humans and everyone’s personality. It’s such a touching, clever, and beautifully written story. I wonder, as Fern gets older, whether she will still be able to hear the voices of the animals…

  20. I love Charlotte’s Web so much!! My dad and I read this together when I was younger. One of my favorite aspects of this book is White’s use of language; from the blunt opening inquisition of the axe to the glorious words that Charlotte weaves into her web, White capitalizes on linguistic beauty and diversity, and I appreciate the seamless way in which he does so.

    Additionally, like many other children’s authors, White juxtaposes death with life, grief with hope, and it is this combination that is my favorite part about the book. Who would have thought that a story about a spider and a pig could have as much of an impact as it does?

    Finally, I remember as a child being struck by the simple sketch illustrations. I love how stark they are.

    And, unrelatedly, Templeton! He just kills me; he is hilarious.

  21. Nana Seiwaa Sekyere says:

    Just like Stone, this was also my first time reading Charlotte’s Web. It was wonderful to see how relationships developed and events unfolded throughout the book. What struck me most was the use of vocabulary in the book. The characters in the story (e.g. Charlotte) used vocabulary that many young children may not be familiar with but other characters would ask for clarification and the words would be explained. I thought it was a great way for children to learn vocabulary because they encounter new words and learn what they mean in that context. It certainly seems like this would be a great book to read aloud to children!

  22. Liza Raino-Ogden says:

    This book brought me right back to being eight years old. I have never seen any form of the movie, and I have to admit, I shed a tear when Wilbur left Charlotte for the last time. But, as other people have mentioned, I tihnk that the death of Charlotte is what this book does really well. It deals with a difficult subject in a very manageable way, using a bit of magic, phenomenal words, and caring characters to help Wilbur and the reader through the loss.

    Additionally, as others have written about, I love how the power of words is central to the book’s theme. It’s clear how Charlotte’s Web became a classic!

  23. Charlotte’s Web is also a famous book for children in China. It has been listing as the “must-read” book since I was a child. I didn’t really read it because I didn’t really appreciate the story when I read the first few paragraphs as a child. Then, I saw the film, but I didn’t keep on watching because I felt that it was not my type. However, having heard that many people really like this book, I decided to give it a try. I found that it indeed is a great book for children. Learning about relationship with animals around the heroine, children can really empathize and learn to expand their circle of concerns.

  24. I thought this book was a fascinating story that students are exposed to. The friendship between Charlotte and Wilbur is full of warmth without being too cheesy and the level of vocabulary that the book introduces is also great!

  25. I think it was my fourth grade teacher who read Charlotte’s Web to us. However, this was the first time I read it on my own, and as many of you have stated, I noticed many different aspects I certainly didn’t remember. One of the first thoughts I had was how profound Wilbur’s reflections about life were: “Wilbur didn’t want food, he wanted love. He wanted a friend -someone who would play with him.” I particularly enjoyed the animals’ personalities and the way each one acted and expressed itself. I was also delighted with the illustrations, because, as Katherine said, I didn’t remember seeing them as a child. Furthermore, this beautiful story made me reflect on my own childhood, and how as an adult I many times forget to imagine and to allow myself to be surprised by my surroundings, just like Fern; and to above all enjoy the here and now, just like Charlotte did.

  26. Some of my earliest feelings of the kind of wistful sadness that (only?) pieces of art (literature, music, art) can bring come from the first time I finished _Charlotte’s Web_. Like others above, it was also one of my first chapter books (sometime in the middle of elementary school), but my clearest memory is that the book also held a clear message about the fragility and transience of life. Who wouldn’t start to form an emotional attachment for these characters, brought into our imaginations by the vibrancy of White’s writing? In a certain sense, this book is a right of passage for young people — especially those who are dealing with (the potential of) loss. Yet there is a greater message here about life — that it’s short (too short sometimes) and we don’t have too much time to support, build up, and even love those who travel with us on the journey. By the kindnesses exchanged between Wilbur and Charlotte, children and adults alike see that relationships can be mutually sustaining without letting the other off the hook. We see that simple gestures can serve as tremendous kindnesses to others, even as their own road may not always be smooth.

  27. Theodor Geisel, more commonly known to most as Dr. Seuss, was born in Springfield, Massachusetts on March 2, 1904. Given his incredibly prolific repertoire of children’s books, this day signifies a celebration of reading to many, including many formal organizations like Pi Beta Phi Fraternity, who have dubbed it Fraternity Day of Service, furthering their philanthropic efforts centered around the promotion of literacy. While many know about Dr. Seuss’ intense work ethic or his many children’s books written with the help and support of his wife, here are a few things you might not know…

    -Dr. Seuss was never a doctor (nor a Seuss – this was Geisel’s mother’s maiden name). Instead, he chose to add this title to his name as a whimsical, lighthearted way to give his characters added credibility.
    -Geisel had terrible stage fright, dating back to a presentation of medals by Theodore Roosevelt to children who sold large amounts of war bonds in support of WWI. Ten boys, including Geisel, were selected to receive this medal, but only nine medals were present at the ceremony, leading President Roosevelt to ask what young Geisel, the last boy in line to receive a medal, was doing on stage.
    -Geisel’s career began illustrating for magazines and advertisements, where he experienced much success, despite having been described as a “mediocre” college student at Dartmouth. He then shifted to Hollywood film making, while dabbling in writing on the side. It wasn’t until much later that his focus shifted more fully to writing books.
    -Geisel’s artwork was heavily influenced by the surrealist movement, which he was particularly fascinated by when in Paris in the 1920s.
    -As part of a documentary film-making team, Geisel traveled with troops during WWII and ended up briefly being caught behind enemy lines in the beginnings of what would come to be known as the Battle of the Bulge.
    -Between the years of 1957 and 1976, Geisel regularly produced two to three books a year, in addition to making movies. He was incredibly involved in the publishing choices for these books, down to the very colors that were used in printing.
    -Geisel’s last book, Oh the Places You’ll Go!, was published in 1990. Recently (2015), a book he had drafted but never published, What Pet Should I Get?, was published posthumously.

    For more information on the life and impact of Theodore Geisel, visit:
    https://www.earlymoments.com/dr-seuss/The-Life-and-Times-of-Dr-Seuss/
    http://www.drseussart.com
    http://www.history.com/news/9-things-you-may-not-know-about-dr-seuss

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