Top 100 Children’s Novels (#1)
#1 Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White (1952)
(#1)(#1)(#1)(#1)(#1)(#1) (#1)(#1)(#1)(#1)(#1)(#1) (#1)(#1)(#1)(#1)(#1)(#1) (#1)(#1)(#1)(#1)(#1)(#1) (#1)(#1)(#1)(#1)(#1)(#1) (#1)(#2)(#2)(#2)(#2)(#2) (#2)(#2)(#2)(#2)(#2)(#2) (#2)(#2)(#2)(#2)(#2)(#2) (#2)(#2)(#3)(#3)(#3)(#3) (#3)(#3)(#3)(#3)(#3)(#3) (#3)(#3)(#4)(#4)(#4)(#4) (#4)(#4)(#4)(#5)(#5)(#5) (#5)(#5)(#5)(#5)(#6)(#6) (#6)(#6)(#6)(#6)(#6)(#6) (#7)(#7)(#7)(#7)(#8)(#8) (#8)(#8)(#8)(#9)(#9)(#9) (#9)(#10)(#10)(#10)(#10) – 751 points
I have no idea how the rest of the results will go, but I’ll be shocked if this isn’t number one. – Steven Engelfried, Raising A Reader Coordinator, 2010 Newbery Award Committee Member, Multnomah County Library, Portland, OR
Some book. (Though interesting for writers to know that Fern didn’t appear as a character until the eighth draft.) – Susan Ramsey
I reread this umpteem times. My parents couldn’t understand why I loved it so when I’m deathly afraid of spiders. I finally pointed out there is no picture of Charlotte in the book. It introduced kids to the concept that animals deserve dignity and kindness. – Joan L. Raphael, Youth Collections Librarian, San Diego Public Library
And yet, has there ever been a better book? One of my personal criteria for great stories is fresh, off-the-wall plots, and to this day, I challenge you to find an odder premise than the spider who saves a young pig by spinning words into her web. That’s not even getting into the strength of the characterization, from patient Charlotte and immature Wilbur to secondary delights such as the geese with their repetitive vocal patterns or surly Templeton and his smelly hoard. Did I mention well written? Such clean, sure language! – Kate Coombs (Book Aunt)
This is here because I know it will be in the top three once all is counted up and recognized, also I do adore this story of friendship and farm smells. This is the first chapter book I remember my mother reading to me. I still own that copy. Regardless if a child has never seen a porcine anything outside the meat department of the local grocery store, they will immediately identify with Fern’s desire to rescue Wilber and put doll clothes on him. As a rule I am not drawn to, indeed actively shun, talking animal books but when it comes to geese with speech impediments I’m putty-utty in the masterful E. B. Whites hands. – DaNae (The Librariest)
Read to me by my otherwise frightening second grade teacher Mrs. Prough. I remember sitting “Indian style” on the green carpet, desperate that Charlotte find a way to keep Wilbur alive. Then, I identified with Fern and Wilbur. Now I read this as Charlotte. No wonder generations love this book. – Linda Urban
Not just the greatest children’s book of all time…THE GREATEST BOOK OF ANY GENRE, ANY TIME (excluding the Bible, Torah, and Koran) – Mary Ann Rodman
Best.read.aloud.ever. – Beth Maddigan, Provincial Children’s Librarian, Newfoundland and Labrador Public Libraries, St. John’s, NL
I still cry every time I read it. The most elegant writing in the world! – Jody Sitts, Children’s Librarian, Field Library, Peekskill, NY
E.B. White’s classic has incredibly memorable first and last lines, and everything in between feels golden. Every time I re-read it I’m so moved by its simple beauty. I was also astonished by how my daughter took it from such a young age. The first time she heard it read aloud, she was really “too young” to comprehend the story fully, and yet when I got to the last page and shut the book, she cried and wanted “more Wilbur.” – Beth Priest (Endless Books)
Timeless, appeals to so many diverse groups. – Chris Vollmer, Librarian/ITL/Lit. First Coordinator, Browning School, Milwaukee, WI
Ironically, I never read it as a kid, although it was my sister’s favorite. I fell in love with it when I read it to my sons. – Brenda Kahn, School Library Media Specialist, Tenakill Middle School, Closter, NJ
I had a little trouble ranking the other nine books, but there was no question which one would top my list. I can still remember being in first grade and listening to our teacher read this aloud to us—laughing at the talkative geese, praying Charlotte’s plan to save poor Wilbur’s bacon would succeed, and crying over the final paragraphs. White’s farmyard tale of friendship, loss, and the power of the written word has stayed with me to this very day—and isn’t that what all great literature aspires to? – Christi Esterle, Youth Librarian, Douglas County Libraries, Parker CO
First read aloud to me by my beloved second grade teacher in 1968, I immediately demanded my own copy for at home. I’ve read it many times since then, including out loud to my own children. This slim volume, with its nostalgic black and white illustrations by Garth Williams, hits so many of the major themes in children’s books–friendship, love, death, loss, coming of age–while maintaining a sense of humor. And who among us doesn’t crave a friend like Charlotte? – Margo Tanenbaum
A classic chapter book that I have enjoyed reading every year to groups of students and to my own daughters. I remember reading it myself when I was in second grade. – Tina (Tina Says . . . )
Almost everyone who reads this one ends up in tears or at least with a lump in the throat. And the whole story is just so Real, even though it’s about talking animals. – Sherry Early
Enduring classic (as opposed to the other classics that teachers continue to make kids read but that kids really don’t like). – Brenda Ferber
Irresistible characters, great dialogue, and a fantastic plot make this book a true classic. – Heidi Grange, School Library Media Teacher, Summit Elementary, Smithfield, UT
This one is the classic story of love and friendship and even loss. The animal personalities are well thought out and the story moves at a good pace. – Kristen M. (We Be Reading)
WHY? Because you think you know it and you don’t. Read it again. It is the finest novel about friendship ever written. – Walter M. Mayes
Wilbur is "some pig" and this story is "something special". – David Ziegler
A celebration of language. – Priscilla Cordero, Ocean County Library, Toms River, NJ
When he discovers that he is destined to be someone’s dinner, Wilbur the pig is desolate until his spider friend Charlotte decides to help him. (Another one I first heard–my mom read a chapter a night. Then I read it, and read it, and read it.) – Laurel Sharp, Liverpool Public Library, Liverpool, NY
This is by far my favorite fiction book for kids. I loved it as a child and have reread it as an adult. I rarely reread any book. – Martha Sherod, LAPL
(The second best book that everyone still reads and remembers–and possibly your winner) – Ed Spicer
I read this book for the first time during the summer between 3rd and 4th grades. It was then that I decided it was more interesting to lay in bed and read rather than watch cartoons. I was hooked from the very start, and I could barely put the book down long enough to eat or sleep. I distinctively remember waking up early to read the last chapters, all while crying buckets of tears and eating trying to eat Rice Krispies that were getting soggy by the minute. – Jennifer Sauls
A children’s book that has stood the test of time and never grows old. – Pam W. Coughlan (Mother Reader)
This is my favorite for a number of reasons, but the absolute TOP is that it was the first chapter book I read on my own. I was seven. I’m 39 now, and I’ve still not managed to surpass the feeling of pride and liberation I felt when I realized I had crossed the threshold from kiddie books to grown-up books (obviously equating chapters with being a grown-up!) – Kara Dean
A storyteller’s story that begs to be read aloud right through to the heart-wrenching death scene and on to the very end. – Faith Brautigam, Director of Youth Services, Gail Borden Public Library District, Elgin, IL
I am 48 and I STILL cry when Charlotte dies. In college I began reading White’s collected essays. This is not simply my favorite book: he is my favorite author. AND can you believe this book won a Newbery HONOR in 1953, not the Medal. The Medalist was Secret of the Andes. Does anyone remember Secret of the Andes? Is it in print? – Maria Padian
This one changes the landscape for chapter books in mid-century. It’s a perfect readaloud, but also a great book for a relatively new reader to take on. It’s got humor and pathos, and the best retelling of the Easter story I’ve ever read in secular form. I can’t read the end without crying, even after all these years. – Libby Gruner
No stronger image is created in all of children’s literature to represent the “circle of life” than Charlotte’s death and the birth of all those babies. Again the prose and imagery close on perfection. – Janice E. Bojda, Head of Children’s Services, Evanston Public Library
Including the award for the best all time first line. – Jacqui Robbins
It was not actually my favorite as a child, but watching my seven-year-old read through it, utterly entranced, has reminded me how lovely it is. – Lisa Gordis, Barnard College
Every time I read this masterpiece, I’m moved by the poetry and simplicity of E.B.White’s writing — every word is perfect — and by the lovely, bittersweet ending, which teaches better than any other book that death is a natural part of life. – Joanne R. Fritz
" ‘Where’s Papa going with that axe?’ said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast."
Under normal circumstances I edit down the responses that people have to the books, but I figured that for the number one children’s novel as decided by this poll, I would allow EVERYBODY to have their say. And so they have. This is every comment I received from folks who voted this book onto the list. Their votes have paid off as well. Charlotte’s Web, you will always be number one to American children and adults everywhere.
Anita Silvey has a lovely explanation of how E.B. White’s book came to be in 100 Best Books for Children. "His love of nature inspired all three of his children’s books. The first of these, Stuart Little, took White about eighteen years to write. Charlotte’s Web emerged after a relatively short two-year gestation process. It began as an essay for the Atlantic Monthly entitled ‘Death of a Pig,’ which told how White tended to an ailing pig, only to have it die. The idea for the book came to White while he was carrying a pail of slops to his pig and thinking about writing a children’s book. He wanted a way to save a pig’s life, and then he started watching a large spider."
For a truly good time you should make a point to read editor Ursula Nordstrom’s letters on the book in Dear Genius (collected by Leonard Marcus). Prior to CW‘s publication there are some great notes. Like this one to Mr. White himself. "No, I have never encountered any story plot like Charlotte’s Web. I do not believe that any other writer has ever told about a spider writing words in its web. Perhaps I should ask some of the children’s book ladies who go back even further in time than I do, but I am sure nothing even remotely like this has been written. I believe Charlotte is the first spider since Miss Muffet’s." The notes on the changes made to the illustrations are particularly telling as well. Good stuff.
The book won a Newbery Honor in 1952, losing out the gold to The Secret of the Andes by Ann Nolan Clark. To determine why this might be, the blog Heavy Medals decided to conduct a formal reading of Clark’s book. In Part One they simply discuss the decision to read it. In Part Two and Part Three they really pick it apart and thoroughly consider it. From my own point of view, and as I understand it, the simplified reason for why Clark beat White may have something to do with the fact that the librarians on the Newbery committee were tired of handing out medals to books about middle American white kids. The Secret of the Andes took place in Peru! It was new and exciting. And to steal from Nina Lindsay, this is what Clark said in her Newbery acceptance speech, "I have worked with Spanish children from New Mexico to Central and South America, with Indian children from Canada to Peru. I have worked with them because I like them. I write about them because their stories need to be told. All children need understanding, but children of segregated racial groups need even more. All children need someone to make a bridge from their world to the world of the adults who surround them." They wanted to open children’s eyes to the greater world out there. To get past their own back yards. You can understand their decision better in that context.
It seems apropos that fellow Top Ten Poll author Louis Sachar discusses his love of this book in Everything I Need to Know I Learned from a Children’s Book. Says he, "My fourth-grade teacher read a chapter of Charlotte’s Web every day after lunch; her reading out loud surprised me because a teacher hadn’t done this since we were in kindergarten or maybe first grade. I remember very little about fourth grade except the teacher reading us that book."
Author/illustrator Eric Rohmann agrees. His teacher also read the book to him. ". . . on its deepest level Charlotte’s Web demonstrates how words, with their power, create reality. Of course, everyone sees Charlotte’s words – they are displayed in her spider webs. Wilbur’s life is saved by what he and everyone else sees. It was the same with me. In that classroom I learned that a book becomes the person who is reading it. Charlotte’s Web, for me, has Ms. Cerny’s face on it."
- Do you knit lace? (put your hand down, mom). Well if so, why not use this pattern to create the world’s coolest lace knit scarf. Such a good idea.
- My friend Dan had this take on the book.
- And, of course, there was this accompanying t-shirt.
Eudora Welty said of book in The New York Times, "What the book is about is friendship on earth, affection and protection, adventure and miracle, life and death, trust and treachery, pleasure and pain, and the passing of time. As a piece of work it is just about perfect, and just about magical in the way it is done. ‘At-at-at, at the risk of repeating myself,’ as the goose says, Charlotte’s Web is an adorable book."
In this world, there is only one true cover for this book and Garth Williams got it right the first time. Even when the movie editions of the book come out they reference it. See?:
Now I know that some of you have a real affection for the 1973 animated version of this story. Can’t say as I share it with you, but I know it’s there. I just find it interesting that Debbie Reynolds did the voice of Charlotte.
Then came the animated sequel Charlotte’s Web 2 . . . but I’ll spare you.
Regarding the live action version that came out a couple years ago. First off I have two words for you: star studded. You will rarely see Robert Redford and Andre 3000 in a film together. This is one of the few times. As I recall the reaction to the movie was modest and folks generally liked it, though everyone agreed that this is an impossible book to capture on film perfectly.
The trailer gives you one sense of the film. The opening title sequence gives you another entirely.
And so we come to the last post on this poll. Tomorrow I will release the full list from 1-100. The day after that I’ll post the classics that didn’t make it onto the list (and the ones that appeared in numbers 101-120). And the day after that (and this is the big one) every single book that was voted on that didn’t make it. Phew!
Filed under: Top 100 Children's Novels (2010)
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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