Top 100 Children’s Novels #1: Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White
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I’m sure this will be number one again, and for good reason. A magical barnyard that maintains its “barn”ness. Amazing stuff. – Heather Christensen
I know, I know it’s so predictable but I loved this book as a kid (despite having a terrible fear of spiders) and still love it as an adult. It has changed and grown with me – and isn’t that the testament of something that is truly great? As a kid I saw it as a book about friendship and now I see it is a book about loss. It’s deep stuff. And nothing is better than the audiobook read by E.B. White. I like to have it on in the background while I do mundane things like clean and fold laundry hoping that I will absorb some of his genius. – Sharon Ozimy
Because it has to be here. I adore this story of friendship and farm smells. Even if a child has never experienced farm life up close, 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 talking animal books, but when it comes to geese with speech impediments I’m putty-utty in the masterful E. B. White’s hands. – DaNae Leu
My second grade teacher read this to our class in the 1960’s. This was my first experience with chapter book. I’ve read it again several times as a child and a teacher myself. – Dee Sypherd
The first chapter book that I read by myself and the first chapter book I read out aloud to my own boys. Timeless language, animal characters… lovely – Charlotte Burrows
A children’s book that has stood the test of time and never grows old. – Pam Coughlan
All of my boys have had this classic read aloud to them, then we watch the movie with popcorn and candy. It’s a rite of passage into the club of reading in our family. – Tess Alfonsin
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. – The Sauls Family
Humble. Radiant. Terrific. Some Pig. – Hotspur Closser
I’ve never looked at a spider or a pig in quite the same way since. – DeAnn Okamura
” ‘Where’s Papa going with that axe?’ said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast.”
And here we reach the end of the Top 100 Children’s Novels poll results. I think what I’ve learned from redoing my old polls is that some books are so firmly entrenched in the public consciousness that it is impossible to conduct a poll of this sort and expect them to be anywhere but #1. And you, Charlotte’s Web, you will always be number one to American children and adults everywhere.
The plot, as it appears in Anita Silvey’s Everything I Need to Know I Learned From a Children’s Book reads, “In Charlotte’s Web, Charlotte, a spider, serves as the main protagonists; Fern, a young girl, plays a supporting role. Both females work to sve the life of Wilbur, the runt pig of the litter. In fact, the reader learns to appreciate an entire group of talking animals and watch their interactions in the barn. Than at the state fair, Charlotte asserts the power of the pen – in this case the words she weaves in her web. With just seven words, she convinces everyone that Wilbur, “some pig,” is truly something special and must be kept alive.”
Ms. 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 New Yorker article The Lion and the Mouse concentrated primarily on the late great librarian Anne Carroll Moore’s dislike of E.B. White’s Stuart Little, but some time was spent discussing Charlotte’s Web as well. Ms. Moore was not a particular fan since she felt that the character of Fern was “never developed.” Here is how the article chronicles Ms. Nordstrom’s response:
“Nordstrom, after hearing of Moore’s reservations and reading a rave by Eudora Welty in the Times, gleefully wrote to White, ‘Eudora Welty said the book was perfect for anyone over eight or under eighty, and that leaves Miss Moore out as she is a girl of eighty-two’.”
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.
Family Greed Separates Charlotte from Wilbur was the headline in 2010 when the art of Charlotte’s Web, created by the impossibly talented Garth Williams, was put up for auction. Sadly, you will now probably never be able to see an exhibit of this book’s artwork in full. The cover came out to about $155,000.
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 (as mentioned before) 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.
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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