Having heard endless references to Charlotte’s Web over the years (without actually having read it), I was looking forward to this book but also dreading it in some ways – some people had said it was tragically sad. So I knew it was going to be a sweet story written by the masterly E. B. White, but who would kick the bucket? Would it be Wilbur? Templeton? Fern? (Don’t worry. This is a spoiler-free review.)
This is the story of Wilbur the Pig who is scheduled to be killed for meat unless someone can come to his rescue – but who will do that? (No spoilers here, although you may well hear it from someone else!) Charlotte is the titular character in this children’s novel, and it is she who becomes Wilbur’s closest friend even when he doesn’t realize it at the time.
So, not only is the story great and real-life, but White, as its author, is superb (of course) and tells the tale in a dry and very grown-up way which I thought was impressive. (I think a lot of kids’ books sometimes don’t challenge the child readers enough in terms of vocabulary and expectations. White uses this volume as a springboard for kid readers (and their adults) to acquire new words and to learn about the world of Wilbur and Charlotte at the same time.)
For example, White really did base Charlotte (the spider of the web) on a real meeting of a barn spider which he originally called Charlotte Epeira (after Epeira sclopeteria, the Grey Cross spider that is now known as Aranea sericata). In the novel, when Charlotte first meets Wilbur, she gives her name as “Charlotte A. Cavatica” from the Latin name for the orb-weaver spider (Araneaus cavaticus). Later in the story, Charlotte is explaining some of her arachnid body in anatomical terms, which actually (according to Wiki) came from a couple of serious scientific books about spiders. And then Charlotte’s spider children end up with spider-y names such as Joy, Nellie and Aranea. (Huh. Who woulda thunk?)
And I don’t want to talk about White’s charming story without mentioning the *perfect* illustrations done by Garth Williams, an American artist who lived from 1912-1996. He drew illustrations for both White’s Stuart Little and Charlotte’s Web, and also for Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books. (I bet you would recognize his drawings if you saw them.) Williams’ father was an illustrator for Punch and his mother was a landscape painter and the family moved from the East Coast to UK in 1922 where he received most of his education. When WWII broke out, Williams and his family moved back to the US where he worked for a while as a camouflage artist (seeing as it was wartime) and then serendipitously received his first commission from Harper’s in 1945, that of Stuart Little. (White had burned through eight other illustrators at this point, but I’m not sure why.) Williams went on to illustrate more than 95 children’s books in the future.
So a lovely read and not quite the carnage that I had expected from the narrative. White is a very good writer (as would be the case from one of the co-authors of The Elements of Style , a writing guidebook for so many students in the U.S.)