“A Hymn to the Barn”
Charlotte’s Web Turns 60!
The animals of Zuckerman’s barn have something to celebrate. On October 15, the book which launched them into the world, E.B. White’s pastoral masterpiece Charlotte’s Web, turns sixty years old! First published in 1952 by HarperCollins, the book has been re-released in a commemorative edition with a foreword by Newberry Medalist Kate DiCamillo (author of Because of Winn Dixie, The Tale of Despereaux and others).
Charlotte’s Web is one of my all-time favorite books. And I mean all books, not just children’s. This magical story about a runty pig named Wilbur who is spared from the ax by a girl named Fern and saved from becoming the Christmas ham by a spider named Charlotte, still makes me fall in love with rural life and barnyard animals and true friends and stories and words every time I read it.
From the strong opening line, “Where’s Papa going with that ax?” to the ending tribute to Charlotte, E.B. White takes me through seasons and life-cycles, through friendship and tolerance, through mortality and salvation.
With brilliant craftsmanship, that includes exquisitely simple language, characters bursting from the page, engaging plot lines, and an understanding of human emotion, E.B. White spins a story that speaks to the heart of being human and the unceasing wonders of the world.
Though the story runs along the edge of fantasy, the characters remain anchored in living detail. Wilbur may be able to shout and cry but he’s still a young pig who loves rolling in dung. And Charlotte may be able to weave words, but she is still a ferocious spider who drinks the insides of her prey. White’s ability to sew reality and fantasy together helps make the leap to web-spun miracles believable. It makes perfect sense in the context of the world he created that Charlotte can write. So convincing is the possibility, I often find my own self looking for words in webs.
Not every character is as lovable as Wilbur and Charlotte. Templeton the rat is downright despicable and “would kill a gosling if he could get away with it.” But even Templeton plays an integral part in the story. He gathers words for Charlotte and delivers Charlotte’s egg sac from the ceiling of the barn. And he is indirectly responsible for saving Charlotte from being caught by Avery. The fact that even Templeton, in all his gluttony and selfishness, becomes tolerable, likable even, makes the story that much more uplifting. It’s a testament to E.B. White’s belief in possibility and kindness.
Other themes emerge and unfold, like the passage of time. The book cycles through a full year of seasons on the farm, and shows both Wilbur and Fern growing up. Wilbur becomes a more confident pig and Fern changes from a girl who can understand talking animals to a young woman more interested in Ferris wheels and boys. Friendships blossom, within the barn-yard and among the humans. However, it is Charlotte and Wilbur’s friendship that takes center stage. Their relationship is loyal and true, which makes the pivotal scene near the end all the more riveting and emotionally wrought.
For as soon as Wilbur has triumphantly sealed his fate, and is destined to live out his days on the farm and not at the butcher’s, Charlotte admits she is dying. Her ability to look death squarely in the face, her directness with Wilbur, and her acceptance of the end is unflinching in its bravery. It squeezes my heart every time. And Wilbur’s sudden stroke of insight- to bring Charlotte’s children back to Zuckerman’s barn – is the perfect way for the story to move forward and to create life after the last page, as Charlotte’s children will continue on for many generations. The scene is poignant and profound, woven just right.
You can tell White loved his characters. He researched his material with a detective’s eye for detail and it was his own observations and feelings that inspired the story of Charlotte’s Web. It was 1949, when White walked into his barn in Maine and noticed an especially beautiful spider web. He watched the large grey spider for weeks. Around this time he was also feeling very sad about a dying pig and started imagining ways to save a pig’s life.
One October evening he noticed the spider weaving an egg sac and then never saw her again. He cut the egg sac out of the web and put it in a candy box and brought it to New York City where he worked. A few weeks later he discovered tiny spiderlings escaping from the air holes in the box. He was so charmed, he let them throw silk all over his personal belongings.
The story took him two years to write and a year to compost and revise. It was published in 1952, and illustrated with 47 black and white drawings by Garth Williams. Sixty years later Charlotte’s Web is the top selling children’s paperback book, and has sold over 9 million copies. It has been translated into 35 languages, and scripted into two movies – a 1973 animated musical, and a 2006 live-action/computer animated version.
E.B. White described Charlotte’s Web as “a hymn to the barn, an acceptance of dung.” I would add it is also a hymn to life. Though death features prominently, and is after all part of the major plotline of the book, the unceasing changes and daily miracles of life and the uplifting power of friendship, is what ultimately shines through. E.B. White said it best, when he described his own writing: “All I hope to say in books, all that I ever hope to say, is that I love the world.”
Charlotte’s Web written by E.B. White, illustrated by Garth Williams, with foreword by Kate DiCamillo. Published by HarperCollins, 2012 (new edition). ISBN: 0-06-026385-7
Elwyn Brooks White (1899-1985) was a writer for most of his life, and was first published in 1909, with a prize-winning poem in the magazine, “Woman’s Home Companion.” He was editor of the “Cornell Daily Sun” in college, and spent time as a newspaper reporter, and in advertising, before he joined the staff at “The New Yorker” magazine. He penned essays and poems, publishing more than 17 books of prose and poetry, and co-authored the writer’s essential guide book, The Elements of Style (1959). And of course he was a children’s book author, making a lasting impression in the field not only with Charlotte’s Web, but also with Stuart Little (1945), and Trumpet of the Swan (1970.) He was the recipient of numerous awards including the Newberry Honor Award, the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award, and the National Medal for Literature.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Cheli has been involved with creative arts and education for most of her life, and has taught many subjects from art and books to yoga and zoology. But she has a special fondness for kid’s books, and has worked in the field for more than 20 years. She is a freelance writer and regular contributor to Valley Kids and teaches a course for adults in “Writing for Children.” She writes from Colrain, where she lives with her musician-husband, three children, and shelves full of kid’s books.