Charlotte’s Web by E. B. White
(HarperCollins, 1952, 184 pages)
One of the marks of good children’s literature is the ability to convey sentiment without becoming sentimental. This is a mark of good literature in general of course, but sentimentality is a pitfall to which children’s books are particularly prone. This is (part of) the great accomplishment of E. B. White’s classic; in a story about the lives of farmyard animals he deals with the subjects of love, friendship, and death in a way that never sidesteps the harsh realities of life. What’s more, he does this with a plot that keeps children fully captivated, anxious to see whether Wilbur the pig will live or die and to find out which message Charlotte will spin next in her web. Through an evocative, beautiful, and funny depiction of life and change in an ordinary farmyard, White gently introduces children to the issues that will define the rest of their lives.
I read this to my three year old daughter, and she loved it. It seemed that each time a word, phrase, or concept was introduced that might be difficult for children to comprehend, White anticipates the child’s question and puts it in the mouth of one of his characters (usually Wilbur). I remember reading Charlotte’s Web as a child, and as an adult I found myself drawn in again, not only by the plot, but by the sense of place that White evokes. The beautiful descriptions of summer days and changing seasons of a farm form the perfect backdrop for the themes of the plot. This is the best of children’s literature – a book that engages a child’s love of the fantastic while depicting a world that an adult can recognize as true to the realities of life.