Despite spending the majority of my childhood with a book in my hand, I have never actually read E. B. White’s much loved classic, Charlotte’s Web. And whilst we all know that original books are normally much better than film adaptations, I can’t even say that I have watched the film all the way through. As a result, at the age of 22, I finally sat down to tick this children’s book off my ever increasing reading list.
Charlotte’s Web follows Wilbur, a young pig doomed to die because of his tiny size and appearance. Despite being the run of the litter, he is saved by a young girl, Fern, and begins his life surrounded by her love. Growing up, Wilbur is moved to the farm of Fern’s uncle, where his life begins to integrate with that of the other animals there, including Charlotte, a spider. As he becomes to understand the world, Wilbur realises what it means to be a pig on the farm, and that the coming of winter will ultimately bring his death. From this realisation, the story follows the unique pairing of Charlotte and Wilbur as they attempt to save the pigs life, solidifying a friendship along the way.
The book wastes no time in plunging straight into the crux of the story. Fern is horrified when she realises that the tiny pig is about to be slaughtered, and cannot reconcile herself to the injustice. As she points out, if a child had been born small at birth, they would not be so brutally killed, and she declares, ‘I see no difference’ (p. 3). By giving Fern this voice, with the simplicity of a child’s version of right and wrong, it plays upon our morals and our own behaviour. I definitely feel that the author is pushing their own agenda here against animal cruelty, using the mixture of animals and children to depict the harshness of humanity. A statement is made, but in a way which allows the reader to be involved.
This is taken further by the anthropomorphising of the animals themselves; they are given a voice, and so young readers (and old alike), are given the chance to see them as individuals in their own right. After all, we do this for the more common household pets, such as dogs and cats, so why not farm animals? Whilst I did find the character of Wilbur overly innocent at some points, I enjoyed the way the author uses this literary device to show readers that animals are on an equal footing.
As with many children’s books, beneath the straightforward story, there is quite often lessons which can be learnt, and this book is no exception, especially where Charlotte is concerned. Being born a spider, Charlotte is immediately a victim of prejudice, something the majority of readers (myself included – I have spider phobia!) will be guilty of. Just as Wilbur discovers that he was ‘mistaken about Charlotte’ (p. 42) in his first impressions, I am more than sure that many of us are purposefully made to feel the same. We learn that ‘underneath her rather bold and cruel exterior, she had a kind heart, and she was to prove loyal and true to the very end’ (p. 42). Whilst this may be a clichéd lesson, it is one which I feel is always going to be crucial to impart to children as early as possible. It is a lesson that Austen explores in the famous Pride and Prejudice, and one which is just as applicable for modern readers. People can be different, friendships can be different, but we can learn to love those who we pre-judge, overcoming our own stereotypes.
This is obviously a book for children, but just as the messages and story can be enjoyed by adults, so I also noticed a few darker moments of comedy. At one point, Charlotte states how she always give her victims anesthetic ‘so they won’t feel pain’ (p. 49). Wilbur comments that this is ‘real thoughtful’ (p. 49). The irony is high, and unlikely to go missed by adults. She may be accommodating the feelings of her victims, but victims are exactly what they remain. This is something seen time and time again in the meat industry, where people convince themselves that the animals are humanely killed, yet they are killed all the same. It is a moral predicament which most people will surely pick up on, and perhaps even be influenced by.
If I’m being completely honest, I must say that I feel a large amount of the dialogue in this book to be quite dated, and so may come across as a bit alien to young, modern readers. Another critique I had, which I probably wouldn’t have had as child reader, was the way in which Wilbur knew about things, and could use certain words, which he had never before been exposed to, yet seemed completely innocent of other random things. I know that with children’s books a certain amount of leeway must be given, but as an adult reader the flaw in the story did bug me slightly. Having said that, the story does retain the quintessential feeling of a children’s book, which considering its intended target audience, is obviously a good thing.
The edition of the book I read was the Puffin hardback classics, which I can say with full conviction are completely beautiful. My boyfriend actually surprised me with this book, and I think that the series would make for wonderful gifts for the first time reader, but also just lovely gifts for someone who treasures that particular story. This version comes complete with lovely illustrations inside, which took me straight back to the traditional black and white pictures of my own reading filled youth.
Whilst I don’t think this is my favourite children’s book (perhaps because I missed out on the original childhood reading experience), I did enjoy this quick read. It gives you pretty much everything you want from a children’s book, and leaves you with a story to warm your heart. On the surface, the book may be about the friendship between a pig and a spider, but beneath the superficial appearances, it is a tale which resounds clearly within our own lives, remaining relevant even after all these years. I want to leave this book with a quote which particularly struck me, about how we often forsake the voices of animals beneath our own selfish views:
‘Perhaps if people talked less, animals would talk more’ (p. 110).
Edition: Puffin Hardback Classic