Charlotte's Web is a classic children's tale about a pig named Wilbur and a spider named Charlotte, and how the latter helps the former live a long and happy life. The runt of his litter, saved from the axe by a girl named Fern who just wanted a pet, Wilbur is a young pig who is trying to adjust to a new life away from Fern in a barnyard. He starts to hear rumors, rumors that he will be killed and eaten, rumors that drive him to despair, wailing in his yard.
(It's amazing how many kids books sound so dark and depressing when you try to write a summary for them.)
Charlotte also hears these rumors, and vows that Wilbur will not be killed. The other farm animals (geese, sheep, a horse, and a rat named Templeton among them) deem this impossible, but one night Charlotte spins a web, a most special web, in the doorway to Wilbur's barn. The web reads "SOME PIG".
Thus begins a titan of children's literature, and a book that I've been wanting to read to my kids since starting the Read-Aloud Corner. The story within is a timeless tale of perseverance, of sacrifice, of love and loss. It is a tale of a friendship that spans generations, and how one animal's selfless love can save the life of another.
When we started reading this book most of the kids were familiar with the 1973 animated version, and so they knew most of the plot. Even with that, the kids still seemed engrossed by the simple text, the easy flow of simple words, even though that sometimes included really long run-on sentences that were difficult to say in a single breath for me. The chapters are relatively short, so we often were able to read several in a night.
The voices in this book are fairly simple. Given that most of what Wilbur does could easily be categorized as whining, I chose to make his voice high and whiny (very much like how he sounds in the 1973 animated movie). Charlotte's voice was much calmer, in fact very similar to Mrs. Jewls's voice from Wayside School books. The rest of the cast was easier to give voice to, with the notable exception of the goose and gander, as they have a tendency to repeat things three times. "It's my idio-idio-idiosyncrasy," they say.
There's not really any warnings necessary for this story. No violence (merely the indistinct threat of Wilbur being slaughtered for food), no sex, no harsh language, nothing that might give modern parents any pause. It's a gentle story with gentle language.
The only thing that might be concerning is the ending, and even that's a stretch. Charlotte dies at the end of the story, too weak to move back into the crate that brought her, Templeton, and Wilbur to the county fair. But Templeton and Wilbur retrieve her egg sac, which she had been making for the latter third of the story, and bring it back to the barn with them. Shortly thereafter, when the eggs hatch, most of them fly away, causing Wilbur to absolutely freak out at the loss of these children of his best friend. (To be fair, Wilbur freaks out over a LOT of things). This kind of sadness might be more difficult for younger children, but in my opinion it's important to expose them to sadness, so they can develop methods for handling it.
"It's a nice story. It's a bit slow though, no action. I liked the goose."
Poor A is having trouble adjusting to the new reading schedule we implemented during this book, and so he accidentally ended up falling asleep for many of the chapters.
"Where did the girl go? Why didn't she come see Wilbur?"
I was sure the kids were going to miss this detail in the story, but I was wrong. Near the end of the book Fern, who had been coming to visit Wilbur and the other farm animals nearly every day, suddenly stops coming by. While at the fair, apparently she and a boy named Henry Fussy spent quite a lot of time together, and K noticed that Fern subsequently stopped coming to the barnyard and didn't understand why. Trying to explain a concept like puppy love to a five-year-old is daunting, so I went with the classic "she's growing up" explanation, which really is a theme of the book. K wasn't buying it, though.
"Just cause you grow up doesn't mean you stop seeing your friends!"
Oh, my dear sweet child.
Charlotte's Web is a true classic. Wilbur and Charlotte's stories resonate with kids of all ages, and their friendship is a gem to watch root and take hold. My kids enjoyed the story, despite it's lack of action, and I'll bet your kids will to. Pick it up today!
Recommended Age: 5 and up