As an added perk for the semantic-minded, Charlotte is kind of a word-nerd: Upon her webs, illustrated in the book by Garth Williams, she writes "some pig," "terrific," "radiant," and "humble." As Eudora Welty wrote in her 1952 New York Times review of the book, of the character of the spider, "When her friends wake up in the morning she says 'Salutations!'—in spite of sometimes having been up all night herself, working." It's worth noting that Charlotte is a great female character—smart, brave, loyal, and doing what she needs to do, even if she's spider rather than human; Fern, also, is an empowered, courageous girl, even at just 8 years old.
Welty added, "As a piece of work it is just about perfect, and just about magical in the way it is done. What it all proves—in the words of the minister in the story which he hands down to his congregation after Charlotte writes 'Some Pig' in her web—is 'that human beings must always be on the watch for the coming of wonders.'''
Sixty years later, White's children's classic is one of the most-read books of all time. Brooklyn children's librarian Rita Meade told me, "Charlotte's Web has been a staple on school reading lists for what seems like forever, and every time a kid requests it, I tell them 'Oh, you're going to love this book.' I don't have the heart to tell them how sad it is, of course, but I guess it's something that every kid has to experience for him or herself."
It is, in fact, terribly sad. Of course, that's some of the beauty of it; like other deeply tragic and moving kids' books (A Bridge to Terabithia, for example) readers befriend and learn to love characters right along with the other characters in those books who are doing the same—and then, when those characters are so unfairly wrenched from us, we suffer along with their book-based friends. Of course, death is a part of life, and that's one of the messages of these children's books. But there's redemption in that love and friendship having been there before death, which is one reason we rely on these these books as formative reading material. As Charlotte tells Wilbur, "You have been my friend. That in itself is a tremendous thing. I wove my webs for you because I liked you. After all, what’s a life, anyway? We’re born, we live a little while, we die. A spider’s life can’t help being something of a mess, with all this trapping and eating flies. By helping you, perhaps I was trying to lift up my life a trifle. Heaven knows anyone’s life can stand a little of that."
In an NPR piece today in honor of the book's 60th, author Michael Sims, who wrote The Story of Charlotte's Web, about White's life and famous novel, reveals that when the writer narrated the audiobook of his work in 1970, he couldn't resist the emotional pull either:
"He, of course, as anyone does doing an audio book, had to do several takes for various things, just to get it right," Sims says. "But every time, he broke down when he got to Charlotte's death. And he would do it, and it would mess up. ... He took 17 takes to get through Charlotte's death without his voice cracking or beginning to cry."
Meade adds, of the book's longevity, "I think it's been around for so long because of the honesty of the characters and the way they convey their feelings—even though most of them aren't human, [we get a whole barnyard of characters, in fact] they feel and express human emotions and that makes these emotions more easily relatable to kids. It's a great book for starting discussions about difficult issues with young readers," she says. "It's just a great book anyway."
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.