Flashback Fridays: It is not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer. . .

You’re a pig born the runt of the litter, only saved from an early death by the love of a farm girl.  As you grow up you discover a very dark fate lies in store for you as a pig, but then you make a most extraordinary friend who vows to prevent that fate.

Do you remember: 

Charlotte’s Web by E. B. White, illustrated by Garth Williams (HarperCollins, c1952)

When people talk about the top middle-grade fiction books of all time, this one often makes the cut.  Many times it lands towards the very top of that list.  And that hasn’t really changed over sixty years.  This seemingly simple fantasy story of a pig on a farm and a spider who becomes his friend is still one of the most masterful stories ever written.  My mother read it to me when I was seven years old.  I’m currently reading it to my six-year-old son and marveling at the story all over again.  As a children’s librarian you wind up reading a lot of books and it’s sometimes easy to acknowledge how something is a “classic” and “great writing” while forgetting just how good it actually is.

If you haven’t read this book (why haven’t you?)  the story follows the life of a runty pig named Wilbur who discovers that his idyllic life on the farm will end when the farmer decides to slaughter him.  His friend, a spider named Charlotte, decides she will not let that fate come to pass and devises a plan to see that Wilbur will be spared.  And if you doubt one spider can do much, you haven’t met Charlotte.   This is a work of fantasy (talking animals and writing spiders kind of guarantee that) but it’s not a work of magic or other worlds.  E.B. White keeps readers very firmly grounded in the real world of a rural farm, full of all the sounds, smells and activities that come with it.  And perhaps its that realism that makes the fantastic in this story work so powerfully for so many.

Reading it as an adult is a rather humbling experience.  Because you realize, very  quickly going in that this is a book that pulls no punches.  It’s not going to give you ghastly and grim monsters or supernatural tragedies.  It doesn’t need to.  Death is a looming specter from the very opening of this book.  Wilbur’s story is very nearly ended by a sharp ax–and only the intervention of farm girl Fern prevents that.  Within a few chapters we soon discover that Wilbur’s death has only been delayed . . . and that this all very much part of life on the farm.  Charlotte’s extraordinary promise and mission to save Wilbur from death is simply accepted from the perspective of a child.  As an adult I kind of look at this story with a bit of surprise.  Why on earth does this brilliant and clever spider decide to take on the mission to save a pig?  Wilbur isn’t especially talented or good, he just is what he is.  But that’s the meat of friendship here.  Charlotte becomes friends with Wilbur without him offering her a reason to do so.  Wilbur has many reasons to admire Charlotte, but befriending her also means dealing with her “bloodthirsty” nature as a spider.  By the end of the story, they are what true friends become to one another, and they express this in a  way that is as profound for an adult as for a child–if not more.

It is, admittedly, the story that will have your child asking about death, wondering about it and beginning to realize how it is a part of every life.  It may get listeners wondering about the meat they eat and where it comes from.  But it’s not just a sweet story of friends or a grim story of death, or–for that matter–a love letter to the farming life.  It’s a tale of writing, of the power of words and the incredible influence the placement and timing can have.  It solidly reminds us that no matter how brilliantly clever Charlotte is in her words in the web, she is very cynically manipulating the human beings around her.  She’s the ultimate spider behind the curtain. E. B. White points out how swiftly his human characters are duped–although Mrs. Zuckerman does point out at first  when “Some Pig” appears in Charlotte’s web, that perhaps they should consider it’s the spider that’s extraordinary rather than the pig.  Despite this, all the humans fall in line to believe the messages, and to transform Wilbur into the things the words say he is.  It’s what words do every day in our society to things around us.  Media, politicians, commercials, they all supply the words and we fill in the belief and conviction that transform what they describe before our eyes.

I don’t think this book will ever fail to be included on library shelves.  It is lovely, and powerful and magical and brutal . . . and heart stirring in all the right ways.  There have been two movies based on this book.  The first was a rather brilliant animated version from 1973 that had an amazing voice cast  and crafted musical numbers that blended so perfectly with the story that they’ve remained stuck in my mind since I first watched the movie. There are, to my mind, only a handful of movies that manage to be great movies and capture the essence of the book so well. I admit I haven’t seen the live-action version from 2006 and really don’t intend to.  To be fair, reviews suggest that it sticks rather faithfully to the original story, but I’ll stick to the animated one.

This is the “hardest” book I’ve read my son so far.  I’m only about a third of the way through and while I’m looking forward to sharing the joys and triumphs, I am also anticipating some sadness in introducing him to what happens to Charlotte in the story.  I suppose it is still strange for all the drama and crazy effort of worrying and struggling to put off Wilbur’s demise, it is one small spider’s natural death that causes us such heartache and sticks forever after in our minds.

Here’s to you, Charlotte.

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About Stephanie Whelan

I'm a children's librarian with a life-long love of all things science fiction and fantasy.

Posted on August 19, 2015, in Flashback Fridays, General Posts and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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