Children's Corner: 'Charlotte's Web' has been spinning magic for 60 years
It took author E.B. White 18 years to complete his first children's book, "Stuart Little." But his second children's book -- widely considered his masterpiece -- required only a two-year gestation period, as White, a part-time farmer, saw a large spider in his barn while he was pondering ways to save the life of his ailing pig and realized that he had the idea for a new children's book.
That book was, of course, "Charlotte's Web." Published in 1952, "Charlotte's Web" is beloved by children and adults around the world for the way that it honestly addresses the sorrows and joys of life through the story of the remarkable friendship between a pig named Wilbur and a spider named Charlotte.
" 'Charlotte's Web' remains one of the best-loved and most perfectly crafted children's books of all time. Like its famous protagonist, Charlotte, the book is in a class by itself," children's book expert Anita Silvey writes in "100 Best Books for Children."
To celebrate the 60th anniversary of the publication of "Charlotte's Web," HarperCollins has published a special edition of the book, featuring a foreword by Kate DiCamillo, who won the 2004 Newbery Medal, given annually to the best written children's book, for "The Tale of Desperaux."
In her foreword, Ms. DiCamillo notes that she was a kid who judged a book by its cover, "and the cover of 'Charlotte's Web' made me nervous." She said she could just tell from the "worried pig and the resigned girl" on the cover that the book "virtually guaranteed the reader some sort of misery, and I wanted nothing to do with misery."
"Strong-armed" into reading the book as an adult by a teacher who considered it "a miracle of storytelling," Ms. DiCamillo said she was both charmed and emotionally shattered.
"... [T]he crux of the miracle of this book: Within the confines of its pages, something terrible, something unbearable, happens. And yet we bear this unbearable thing. And, in the end, we even rejoice."
As its millions of fans know, "Charlotte's Web" tells the story of how Wilbur, the runt pig of a litter, is first saved from becoming her family's dinner by a little girl named Fern, and is later befriended by an articulate spider named Charlotte. At first, Wilbur is unsure about Charlotte, as he sees her exulting in killing and then eating a fly.
"Charlotte is fierce, brutal, scheming, bloodthirsty -- everything I don't like," Wilbur worries.
But Wilbur comes to understand that Charlotte is an extraordinary being with a unique perspective on life. And when Charlotte comes up with a way to save Wilbur from the slaughterhouse by writing words in her web, their friendship is sealed.
However, life isn't always about totally happy endings. After saving Wilbur's life, Charlotte comes to the natural end of her own, devastating the pig -- and readers as well.
While White didn't shy from such truth-telling for young readers, however, he didn't leave the story there. Three of Charlotte's daughters, born some months after her death, eventually become Wilbur's new friends.
As Charlotte promises Wilbur before her death: "Winter will pass, the days will lengthen, the ice will melt in the pasture pond. The song sparrow will return and sing, the frogs will awaken, the warm wind will blow again. All these sights and sounds and smells will be yours to enjoy, Wilbur -- this lovely world, these precious days. ..."
Ursula Nordstrom, White's editor at what was then called Harper & Row, claimed that she never altered even a word of the manuscript, although she did suggest that he change the title of a chapter from "The Death of Charlotte" to "The Last Day," Ms. Silvey writes in "100 Best Books for Children." (He did.) The editor, who had recruited artist Garth Williams to do the artwork for "Stuart Little," helped ensure that he also could do the now-iconic illustrations for "Charlotte's Web."
Nordstrom ordered 50,000 copies of "Charlotte's Web" to be printed, and the book was an immediate success with readers and most critics. One notable exception was Anne Carroll Moore, the powerful head children's librarian at the New York Public Library, who said she found the book "hard to take from so masterful a hand."
Nordstrom urged White to ignore Moore's comments, according to letters published in "Dear Genius: The Letters of Ursula Nordstrom." Instead, wrote Nordstrom, White should concentrate on reviews from literary lights such as novelist Eudora Welty, who wrote in The New York Times that, "as a piece of work, it is just about perfect, and just about magical in the way it is done."
Since its publication 60 years ago, "Charlotte's Web" has sold more than 12 million copies and routinely tops the list of favorite children's books. Ms. Silvey believes that it is "the best American novel ever written for children." Ms. DiCamillo, however, said she would go even further.
"I would leave off the phrase 'for children,' " she said in a recent telephone interview. "I think it's a book that you can put in anybody's hands -- adults or children -- and they will get something out of it."
First Published April 17, 2012 10:49 am