Chris Maynard's Reviews > Charlotte's Web

Charlotte's Web by E.B. White
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Check out my review of Charlotte's Web.

Having not read Charlotte’s Web in more than 20 years, I was thoroughly impressed with the craftsmanship, purpose and research embedded in E.B. White’s writing, easily seeing why this work remains a favorite of young children and teachers some 60 years after its publication. Just as White writes how “It is not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer” (p. 184) when describing the late Charlotte in the final paragraph of the story, it is not often that an author is able to craft a creative work that appeals to children but also resonates with adults for similar yet quite different reasons. White does both, immediately hitting on the innocent, caring and just nature of children that some adults unfortunately lose somewhere along the way when detailing Fern’s resistance to her father killing the runt pig, born of unfortunate, uncontrollable circumstances (which parallels the situations of many urban students whom we will be teaching in the future). While White continually evokes themes like justice/injustice, friendship/loneliness, freedom/captivity, life/death/rebirth, etc. for children to grapple and come to terms with throughout Charlotte’s Web, he also piques the attention of “adults” like me via well-calculated writing that always pushes the story forward and typically contains either a) some humor, such as a seemingly simple phrase like “…Charlotte’s campaign against insects” (p. 48) or a seemingly minor event like when Templeton comes back with the word Pre-Shrunk (p. 98), or b) infinite wisdom, like when Dr. Dorian points out that “…no one pointed out that the web is a miracle” (p. 109) and that “…children pay better attention than grownups” (p. 110), ultimately leaving me chuckling or thinking deeply.

Of course, for a story like this to appeal to not only children but adults, there needs to be some suspension of belief. White masterfully accomplishes this without insulting an older audience. We do not know that Wilbur or any of the other animals are capable of experiencing human-like feelings or deep thoughts until nearly 20 pages into the book, when the lonely pig thinks how “There’s never anything to do around here” (p. 16), which sets the stage for Wilbur and eventually Charlotte to talk and become the focal points of the story. And yet, this transition is smooth, seamless and believable, even for a 29-year-old man like me, because of how White details Fern’s fascination with and appreciation of Wilbur and the other barnyard animals, all of which are no different than her, at least in her mind, as seen when she asks her father “If I had been very small at birth, would you have killed me? (p. 3). In many ways, this book encapsulates why I want to work with children as an elementary teacher for a career, via its appreciation of the simplistic curiosity yet intangible perceptibility of children, qualities that White builds via Fern and then the impressionable yet quite lovable Wilbur.

From the perspective of White’s characters, I really appreciate how he uses a pig, spider and even a rat to advance his many themes, which include appreciating inner beauty and the seemingly simple yet complex things in life. Quite often, such animals evoke negative associations of “laziness,” “creepiness” and “dirtiness”. While such qualities are still seen throughout the book, especially in the form of Templeton, White really does a spectacular job of allowing his audience to appreciate the often overlooked wonders of such creatures, especially Charlotte. Especially striking with the portrayal of the mother-/teacher-like Charlotte, beyond her wisdom, is White’s appreciation for the details, like the anatomy (p. 55) and insect-trapping (pp. 37-38) and web-spinning (p. 93) abilities of spiders. Even Charlotte’s last name of Cavatica (which comes from the technical name for the barn spider, Araneus Cavaticus) is a science lesson waiting to be incorporated across the curriculum. While acknowledging that White is a master of developing characters and painting imagery, such as when detailing how spiders fly off into the sky or retelling my favorite literary part of the story, the boxing-like writing of the battle between Charlotte’s cousin and fish trapped in the web (p. 103 ), I cannot help but wonder about the possibilities of how such moments can be further conveyed to children nowadays via supplementary technology like YouTube.

All in all, there is so much to appreciate about Charlotte’s Web, from its incorporation of science and vocabulary lessons to its many literary elements, most notably its foreshadowing, character development, description of settings and many themes. With that said, what I especially appreciate about this book was the relationship between Charlotte and Wilbur, which from an educational perspective can be applied by us current and/or aspiring teachers to our students. It is clear that Charlotte is the teacher and Wilbur the student; with that said, both characters are on an even plane throughout, with Charlotte expressing her gratitude to Wilbur for being her friend just before dying. Charlotte’s patience, respect and unconditional care for Wilbur is ultimately what I hope to take away from the graceful Charlotte’s Web and give to my students when I begin teaching in the next year or so.
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