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Susan’s Bookshelves: Charlotte’s Web by EB White

I recently reviewed a  2024 children’s book for a magazine in which I said it was like Charlotte’s Web crossed with Harry Potter. In truth I was just trying to think of something which features anthropomorphic arachnids, insects and the like. But it reminded me that it was a very long time since I read EB White’s 1952 masterpiece, although I’ve reviewed at least two theatre adaptations.  So back I went to revisit it.

It is, of course, a rich celebration of friendship. Wilbur is a runt piglet in Maine, rescued from her farmer father and hand-reared by Fern. His ultimate destination, obviously, “should” be bacon and pork. That’s the whole point of keeping pigs on a farm. Wilbur who can talk and reason, feels lonely in his pen and needs a friend especially when he realises what his future is. Enter Charlotte, a big grey spider whose web is above him in the barn. Charlotte is a delightful creation. She has all the attributes of spiders: spins, propels herself on draglines and eats flies but she speaks very articulately and is literate.  She’s also very kind and wise.

Once they realise that it won’t be long before Wilbur is taken to market she hatches a rescue plan. She creates words in her web praising Wilbur which amazes the human beings and, in the end, turns “Some pig”  into an attraction who will probably never be slaughtered – with reluctant support from self-interested Templeton the rat whose personality most of us would recognise. He’s hard to dislike but not to be relied upon unless there’s plenty in it for him.

The details are beautiful. Everyone needs a friend like Charlotte – and considering how chary many people, including children, are of spiders that’s quite an achievement. Unfortunately, however, spiders live for only one season, while – if they’re allowed to live out their natural span – pigs live for decades. But there is a moving message about the rhythms and continuity of life at the end.

Fern and her brother Avery are nicely depicted. She loses most of her interest in Wilbur when he gets big, as most children would but White – himself a Maine man and a keeper of animals – knows how children love to play, spend money at the fair, get dirty and charge about.

The edition I re-read had Garth Williams’s original illustrations and they’re a delight too: charming, loving and witty. We used sometimes to use Charlotte’s Web as a Year 7 class reader with reluctant readers.  I’m so glad I’ve found it again.

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Susan Elkin Susan Elkin is an education journalist, author and former secondary teacher of English. She was Education and Training Editor at The Stage from 2005 - 2016
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