Fern Arable (an apt surname considering the rural, farm setting) is horrified that her father is going to kill one of the newborn piglets. Her father explains practical reasoning for such cruel sounding actions; however, he and Mrs. Arable agree to let her take care of the piglet. Fern’s age is not stated, although she may be a year or two younger than her ten-year-old brother Avery. Fern names the pig Wilbur, and raises him in the house until he’s big enough to move to the barn.
Once in his new home, Wilbur seeks a friend. The barnyard animals rebuff Wilbur’s friendship, including a goose that speaks in rhyme and repetitions. Charlotte A. Cavatica, (cavatica is the scientific name for a barn spider), befriends Wilbur.
The story traces efforts by Charlotte and the other animals to save him from becoming a holiday meal. Charlotte weaves a clever plan to convince the human characters in the story that Wilbur is very special. Most of the other animals are helpful for unselfish reasons, in stark contrast to the self-serving motives of Templeton, the rat.
The Scholastic paperback edition (guided reading level R – Scholastic.com) includes realistic pen and ink drawings by Garth Williams, an illustrator of many children’s books. Charlotte’s Web is a Newbery Award winner. The detail within the drawings invite exploration, as details add to the rural farm setting, or illuminate fanciful emotions of the animal characters. Unabridged audio editions are readily available.
Suited to late primary or intermediate elementary grades, numerous rich possibilities exist for classroom use. The primary theme is friendship and its underlying motives. Related extensions may include the ethics of animal treatment on farms. Ten-year-old boys with small guns and wooden daggers are unusual in today’s urbanized culture, providing historical and cultural points for discussion. The text also features unobtrusive built-in vocabulary and science lessons, such as the use of cavatica in Charlotte’s name.
Charlotte’s Web is suited to adults as well, including timeless themes and amusing, enjoyable characters.