Many people think my name is Charlotte Webb because of a 1952 children’s novel by American author E. B. White (the White of the renown work on writing by Strunk and White: The Elements of Style) and illustrated by Garth Williams. Working as a web designer certainly helps cement that idea into their heads, and I am only one year older than Charlotte the spider in Charlotte’s Web. The spider is unusual in children’s books because she acts like a spider, killing bugs to eat, and she dies at the end, after laying her eggs. This is one reason the story is so popular: it does not talk down to kids but treats them as intelligent people with more imagination than adults.
The novel tells the story of a pig named Wilbur and his friendship with a barn spider named Charlotte. When Wilbur is in danger of being slaughtered by the farmer, Charlotte writes messages praising Wilbur (such as “Some Pig”) in her web in order to persuade the farmer to let him live.
Written in White’s dry, low-key manner, Charlotte’s Web is considered a classic of children’s literature, enjoyable to adults as well as children. The description of the experience of swinging on a rope swing at the farm is an often cited example of rhythm in writing, as the pace of the sentences reflects the motion of the swing. Publishers Weekly listed the book as the best-selling children’s paperback of all time as of 2000.
Synopsis from Wikipedia: After sparing the life of a baby piglet almost slaughtered due to his status as runt of the litter, a little girl named Fern Arable adopts it and nurtures it lovingly, naming it Wilbur. However, she is crushed when the piglet matures enough to be separated from his mother, and Wilbur is thus sent to reside on a farm owned by Fern’s uncle, Homer Zuckerman. Her powerful attachment to Wilbur mutual, the pig is left yearning for companionship but is snubbed by other barn animals. However, he is welcomed by an unseen voice who promises to befriend him, vowing to reveal itself to him in the morning.
According to NPR’s Melissa Block (2008) White spent a full year studying spiders before he started writing about one. He studied their habits — their temperament, as he fondly put it. He studied drawings of how they’re put together. He consulted with a curator of spiders at the Museum of Natural History in New York, asking questions about a spider’s life. White wrote that he “pulled no punches” in Charlotte’s Web. “The spider in the book is not prettified in any way,” he said. “She is merely endowed with more talent than usual.”
Charlotte’s Web was adapted into an animated feature by Hanna-Barbera Productions and Sagittarius Productions in 1973. Paramount released a direct-to-video sequel, Charlotte’s Web 2: Wilbur’s Great Adventure, in the U.S. in 2003 (Universal released the film internationally). A live-action film version of E. B. White’s original story was released in 2006. A video game based on this adaption was also released in 2006.
Charlotte’s Web was generally well-reviewed when it was released. In The New York Times, Eudora Welty wrote, “As a piece of work it is just about perfect, and just about magical in the way it is done.” Aside from its paperback sales, Charlotte’s Web is 78th on the all-time bestselling hardback book list. According to publicity for the 2006 film adaptation (see below), the book has sold more than 45 million copies and been translated into 23 languages. It was a Newbery Honor book for 1953, losing to Secret of the Andes by Ann Nolan Clark for the medal. In 1970, White won the Laura Ingalls Wilder Medal, a major prize in the field of children’s literature, for Charlotte’s Web, along with his first children’s book, Stuart Little, published in 1945.
Maria Nikolajeva (in her book The Rhetoric of Character in Children’s Literature) calls the opening of the novel a failure because of White’s begun and then abandoned human dimension involving Fern, which, she says, obscures any allegory to humanity, if one were to view the animals’ story as such. Seth Lerer, in his book Children’s Literature, finds that Charlotte represents female authorship and creativity, and compares her to other female characters in children’s literature such as Jo March in Little Women and Mary Lennox in The Secret Garden. Nancy Larrick brings to attention the “startling note of realism” in the opening line, “Where’s Papa going with that Ax?”
Illustrator Henry Cole expressed his deep childhood appreciation of the characters and story, and calls Garth Williams’ illustrations full of “sensitivity, warmth, humor, and intelligence.” Illustrator Diana Cain Blutenthal states that Williams’ illustrations inspired and influenced her.
There is an unabridged audio book read by White himself which reappeared decades after it had originally been recorded. Newsweek writes that White reads the story “without artifice and with a mellow charm,” and that “White also has a plangency that will make you weep, so don’t listen (at least, not to the sad parts) while driving.” Joe Berk, president of Pathway Sound, had recorded Charlotte’s Web with White in White’s neighbor’s house in Maine (which Berk describes as an especially memorable experience) and released the book in LP. Bantam released Charlotte’s Web alongside Stuart Little on CD in 1991, digitally remastered, having acquired the two of them for rather a large amount.
In 2005, a school teacher in California conceived of a project for her class in which they would send out hundreds of drawings of spiders (each representing Charlotte’s child Aranea going out into the world so that she can return and tell Wilbur of what she has seen) with accompanying letters; they ended up visiting a large number of parks, monuments and museums, and were hosted by and/or prompted responses from celebrities and politicians such as John Travolta and then-First Lady Laura Bush. In an online Hero’s Project, student Amy Mack wrote about Charlotte.
A 2004 study found that Charlotte’s Web was a common read-aloud book for third-graders in schools in San Diego County, California. Based on a 2007 online poll, the National Education Association named the book one of its “Teachers’ Top 100 Books for Children.” It was one of the “Top 100 Chapter Books” of all time in a 2012 poll by School Library Journal.
Its awards and nominations include:
Massachusetts Children’s Book Award (1984)
Newbery Honor Book (1953)
Laura Ingalls Wilder Medal (1970)
Horn Book Fanfare