“Confronted by new challenges, surrounded by new acquaintances — including the characters in the barnyard, who were later to reappear in ‘Charlotte’s Web’ — I was suddenly seeing, feeling, and listening as a child sees, feels, and listens.”

That’s the author E.B. White in a later introduction to “One Man’s Meat” — the collection of columns he wrote for Harper’s Magazine from his saltwater farm in North Brooklin, Maine. It sheds light on how this former New Yorker could imagine a world in which animals say things that only children can hear and a spider weaves words into her web.

“Charlotte’s Web,” published 70 years ago this year, has sold over 33 million copies. Before the year expires, I’d like to commemorate the anniversary and celebrate the wisdom and the enjoyment to be found in this little book.

When this book came out, I was 9 years old. I may have read it in school (I hope I did). But I certainly read it to my kids some 20 years later.

I had been introduced to E.B. White in college. First as a freshman, along with thousands of other freshmen, when I was required to purchase “Elements of Style,” the helpful guide to writing that he co-authored with his former professor William Strunk Jr.

A photograph of the author’s well-loved copy of E.B. White’s 1952 classic “Charlotte’s Web.” Arthur C. Benedict

I met Mr. White again the following year in a writing class that used “One Man’s Meat” to show us what clear writing looked and sounded like.


In 1999, The New Yorker published an article by John Updike titled “Magnum Opus,” to honor the centennial of White’s birth. It motivated me to read “Charlotte’s Web” again. And, as an older adult, to appreciate things that I had not seen before. (After the latest rereading, my used paperback edition gave up the ghost; its cover separated, spilling pages onto my lap.)

What gives this barnyard tale such staying power?

For young readers or listeners to parents reading it, I think it’s the story of friendship between this pig, who seems so innocent, and the wise spider who saves him. Wilbur, faced with death, is pining for a friend. Initially, he must overcome the revulsion he feels when Charlotte describes how she sucks the blood from the bugs she traps in her web. You hear a child say “ugh!” and scrunch up her face when she hears that.

The main actors are backed up by a supporting cast of characters. The gander, goose and goslings who say things three times. The old sheep who speaks the truth and dispenses wisdom. The spring lambs and their mother. There’s even a villain in the mix — the yucky rat, Templeton, who eventually does the right thing (even if it’s for the wrong reason).

I would imagine that any child could identify with Fern, sitting on the milking stool, listening to and observing her friends. Or experience the joy and freedom that Fern and Avery did on the barn swing, or when they went off on their own to explore the county fair.

There’s also the physical comedy children can appreciate. For example, Avery getting his comeuppance when he falls off the trough and breaks the stinky goose egg. Or, when Wilbur faints and the farmhand, Lurvy, throws the pail of water. He misses the pig and soaks both Mr. Zuckerman and Avery.


And there’s the verbal humor, when Templeton, doing something good for a change, talks like this, “Thith thtuff thticks in my mouth,” when he climbs up to the web to carry Charlotte’s egg sac to safety. “It’th worth than caramel candy.” You can hear the giggling when the parent tries to repeat these lines to his child.

Like any good novelist, White builds tension and suspense, releasing them when the time is right. Will Wilbur be saved? Will Avery’s stick reach Charlotte’s web, letting him add her to his collection? Will Wilbur win the medal at the fair? Will any of Charlotte’s children stay behind as hundreds are lifted on the warm updraft and float away?

Perhaps White’s biggest accomplishment is that he can introduce children to death by showing them that it is a natural part of life.

Charlotte’s ready to die after she constructs her magnum opus, the sac with five hundred and fourteen eggs in it. Her life ends, but death’s sting is softened because some of her children and grandchildren will be left to befriend Wilbur.

“Charlotte’s Web” isn’t just for children. It is a little book of wisdom disguised as a children’s book. As adults, we can’t help but feel the sadness of Charlotte’s death when the author writes: “No one was with her when she died.”

But again, when this happens, the book isn’t over. Life goes on in the barnyard as Wilbur waits for Charlotte’s eggs to hatch. White captures his anticipation: “Life is always a rich and steady time when you were waiting for something to happen or to hatch.”


Just as children can appreciate White’s childlike voice and humorous scenes, we adults can also hear him. Charlotte is the voice of White, the lover of words and writer. She not only writes in her web, but also teaches vocabulary to Wilbur. I can’t imagine many authors of children’s books using big words like salutations, untenable, gullible, terrific, radiant, versatile, humble, languishing and magnum opus. But White does, and takes the time to define and use them.

There’s also White’s devotion to justice in Fern’s fierce reaction to her father wanting to kill the runt of the litter: “This is the most terrible case of injustice I ever heard of.”

There is also the more down-to-earth Dr. Dorian, explaining to Fern’s mother that she shouldn’t worry about Fern hearing the animals talk. “Children pay better attention than grown-ups.” He goes on to lament, “Perhaps if people talked less, animals would talk more.”

For me, who is almost 10 years older than the book, my favorite part is when Charlotte talks to herself as she is weaving “TERRIFIC” into her web.

“Now for the R! Up we go! Repeat! Attach! Descend! ….” She goes on like this for a paragraph.

That is something that only a more mature person like me can relate to. These days, it seems that my comments accompany my every action. Apparently, I am not alone.

Thank you, Mr. White — 70 years late — for giving me a lifetime of pleasure with this little book of wisdom and love.

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or login first for digital access. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.

filed under: