written by Rebekah Baker
April 3–9, 2022
This National Library Week, I’m reflecting on a title that made me a reader. And the one that absolutely must be first on my list is Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White. It’s all the way at the top because it’s one of the first books I ever read all by myself as a child- you can even ask my mom.
Even as an adult, I’m surprised that this book was such a favorite. It contained many things that childhood me was not fond of- farm animals, spiders, rats- which I still don’t care for as an adult. As a six-year-old, I was much more an advocate for bacon than pigs.
Charlotte’s Web is a simple story of farm life. Fern, the young main character, intercepts her father from slaughtering the smallest pig of the litter on their family farm and begs him not to. Full of compassion for the runt, she nurses him to health like a baby. Thanks to her, Wilbur is on a course to live out the rest of his life happy and free- until the other animals inform the lucky pig that the farmer plans to eat him come the winter. However, his friend Charlotte the spider hatches a plan to save him- this book was published in 1952- you know the rest.
Despite its juvenile audience, the conflict in this book is complex and introduces some heavy themes for a children’s book. Death, innocence, truth- they all come up in this narrative.
From that first reading, I was strongly compelled by the character of Fern. She has strong moral convictions despite others’ lack of understanding. From the beginning, she classifies her father’s intentions as an “injustice”; specifically objecting to killing an innocent just because it was sickly. Her parents respond to the situation by seeking reassurance their daughter is a normal child given this strange connection with animals. Peeling away the symbolism, Fern’s true strangeness is her ability to see a being that they consider disposable as an equal.
One of the reasons that Charlotte’s Web still resonates with me as an adult, is that I still have strong feelings about right and wrong- as much as I try to leave room for nuance and other’s perspectives. My grandfather would always say to me, “don’t try to save the world”. That phrase still frustrates me, as I at times feel it necessary to take a strong stand for or against a certain issue. Similarly, Fern’s father allows her to keep Wilbur in an effort to show his daughter that taking care of a pig is more effort than she knows. Often it is that pressure to abandon the issue that is the driving force behind advancing a cause. What begins as a disagreement about an injustice on a family farm becomes a rallying spirit which transforms the town.
For me, that’s the enduring lesson of Charlotte’s Web. I would rather that others look upon my efforts as overambitious and know that I need a bit of help from the unlikeliest source than abandon my goals and my principles in the process.
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