Book review: Charlotte’s Web

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Author:E.B. White
Illustrator:Garth Williams
Reading Level (Conceptual):Children 8 and up
Reading Level (Vocabulary):Children 5 and up
Year of publication:1952

Updated Sept. 11, 2006:

My then-10 year old daughter fixed her eyes on me, eyes that implied that she'd just realized that a Truth had been withheld from her, and she was going to get to the bottom of it.

"So, Mom," she said, "It seems as if what a fiction book is about is not really what it's about. Is it?"

"Hmmm," I answered. "What you mean is that a story is not just about its plot. Sometimes, often, in fact, a story has a message and the message is conveyed by the plot, but also by the author's choices of words. The message is sometimes called the theme of the book. It's what the author wants you to learn from reading the book. It's why authors go to all the trouble of writing books."

Which brings us to Charlotte's Web. Charlotte's Web has long been a favorite of mine and my daughter enjoyed listening to it for a year or two when she was very young. But when dear daughter (dd) was around four, her best friend was diagnosed with a disease that was, at the time, almost always fatal. We happened at the time to be listening to the audio book version of Charlotte's Web as read by the author, E.B. White. So, there we are in the car, listening, and dd asks, "Is L. going to die?" I turn the tape player off and answer that I don't know. Dd says "I don't like Charlotte's Web. And what did Cinderella's mother die of?"

I explain that in those times long ago, nearly everyone was more likely to die but that women of childbearing age were particularly at risk. Dd asked, "So, are you going to die? Am I going to die?" ....

For years after that conversation, dd did not willingly read or listen to Charlotte's Web. I believe that this is because, more than any other children's book that I have read, Charlotte's Web is about death as a normal consequence of living. And, no, I'm not saying that children/people never die in books, but they die romantically as in At the Back Of the North Wind or they die unexpectedly young at the hands of Evil Doers or they die off-screen, like Cinderella's mother. (Dd's friend lives and thrives, thank goodness.)

Throughout Charlotte's Web, starting with the first chapter, Wilbur the pig's life is at risk. In the beginning, it's because he is a runt, a child who lacks the health/strength necessary for his mom and the farmer to be willing to care for him.

Later, now healthy if small, naive, and unremarkable, Wilbur's life is still in jeopardy because he is a pig and it is normal for pigs raised on farms to be slaughtered for Christmas dinner.

Wilbur is forced to become remarkable, or to at least seem remarkable in order to survive. Which, I think, is one of the reasons that I love, and my dd loved the story. Some of us are actually remarkable, and we've found over the years that being remarkable is not always the best thing for a person to be.

Charlotte's Web is still not my daughter's favorite book, although it remains one of mine. If your child is a sensitive reader, it might be best to read Charlotte's Web with them, rather than on their own.

Or, if you want them to read E.B. White's amazing, elegant prose in service to a less stark plot, encourage them to read the equally quirky and beautiful Trumpet of the Swan, in which death does not play a central role.

Original posting on Monday, November 26th, 2001:

For her own reading, the six-year old is back to Charlotte's Web. It's an interesting book. The vocabulary is very technical, actually. Many descriptions of the goings-on at a farm. And words like "Frigidaire", "phoebe" (the bird), "interlude" -- make reading slow if the child wants to know what every single word means. We go from the child reading about life, death and friendship and discussing these concepts with us as she reads, " you realize that if I didn't catch bugs and eat them, bugs would increase and multiply and get so numerous that they'd destroy the earth, wipe out everything..." and "... what a gamble friendship is! Charlotte is fierce, brutal, scheming, bloodthirsty -- everything I don't like. ..." to US reading to her "The B. stands for Beatrice, but I just like B that's all." (Junie B. Jones)

If you found this review helpful and/or interesting, consider supporting our book habit: Buy this book!: Charlotte's Web

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