I read a lot as a child. Books were my entertainment and my refuge from being shy and yet innately curious about the world. Books allowed me to engage with the world from the safety of my solitude and yet fully engaged in a story at the same time.
The first book I fell in love with was Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White. It is THE BOOK that made me fall in love with reading. I can still recall going into the library at school and taking out the book simply to read the last few paragraphs. I didn’t even own my own copy of it, which astounds me now, but perhaps that singular reason kept me going back to bookstores and eventually owning my own store to simply be able to be around it and so many other books I fell in love with over the years.
When my daughters were young, we of course read it again. I even named my younger daughter Charlotte after the spider. It was ironic because she spent most of her life terrified of her namesake. That fear of spiders has since left her and now she is quite proud of the talented and well-spoken arachnid she is named after.
History of Charlotte’s Web
Charlotte’s Web was published in 1952, a good 15 years before I was born, but it is one of the most favorite and beloved children’s books of all time. E.B. White was a contributing writer for the New Yorker but also a prolific children’s book writer who, in addition to Charlotte’s Web, penned the popular books Stuart Little and The Trumpet and the Swan.
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The idea of Charlotte’s Web came to E.B. White on a cold October morning in 1949 when in his barn he noticed an elaborate spider’s web. A few weeks later, he saw a spider weaving an egg sack in the web.
It was the last time he ever saw the spider, but it spurred him to cut the egg sack from the web as he was heading back to NYC, so he put it in an empty candy box with some air holes punched into it, put the box on his bureau, and forgot about it. Weeks later, a cluster of tiny spiders emerged from the air holes. They made webs amongst his things for weeks afterward until his cleaning lady complained. And so began the idea of the story of Charlotte’s Web.
As a young girl, I wanted to be Fern, sitting on that milk bucket in the barn that I imagined smelled of hay and cow manure, keeping company with a barnyard of animals. I wanted a big red barn filled with animals, which I got some version of later on in life when I bought an old farmhouse with an old red barn that became a reminder for me of my favorite book.
The only animals ever to live in it were chickens and a pair of Phoebe’s that would come to nest in the rafters each year, and at times, unfortunately, a few of Templeton’s ancestors that I’d rather not think about!
Theme of Friendship
It was the friendship between Wilbur and Charlotte, though, that made the biggest impression on me and the power of written words that could change and alter the future:
With the right words, you can change the world.
It was also my first real introduction to the possibility of loss. At that early age, I realized that death, especially on a farm, is inevitable and a part of life. And it is the friends that we make in life that are the real treasures.
After all, what’s a life, anyway? We’re born, we live a little while, we die – Charlotte
Nobody, of the hundreds of people that had visited the Fair, knew that a grey spider had played the most important part of all. No one was with her when she died.
As a young girl, the story helped me to see that the most important things in life were not necessarily the loud boisterous things, the flashy shiny things, winning the prize, or being famous, but instead were the small often quieter moments, the little mysteries that so often we couldn’t see or didn’t pay attention to but were important nonetheless—the beauty of a spider’s web, the curve of a leaf, the first sounds a baby bird makes in the nest, etc.
The crickets felt it was their duty to warn everybody that summertime cannot last forever. Even on the most beautiful days in the whole year – the days when summer is changing into autumn – the crickets spread the rumor of sadness and change.
Charlotte’s Web asked the bigger questions of what makes a life well lived and striving to find our purpose and help others.
By helping you, perhaps I was trying to lift up my life a trifle. Heaven knows anyone’s life can stand a little of that.Charlotte
After reading it, I stopped eating meat for many years, a salutation to Wilbur. My parents thought it would just be a phase, but it lasted nearly 20 years.
Becoming a Reader
After my daughters were grown, I picked up Charlotte’s Web from the shelf in the children’s room of my store where it became a staple with my review on it. As an adult, I realized that I still loved it, and the last page could still bring tears to my eyes.
Wilbur never forgot Charlotte. Although he loved her children and grandchildren dearly, none of the new spiders ever quite took her place in his heart. She was in a class by herself. It is not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer. Charlotte was both.
It only takes one book for a child (or an adult for that matter) to become a reader. One book that changes everything for them. It speaks to them and becomes a part of their heart. It’s a story that stands the test of time.
Years later, I adopted a chocolate lab puppy from one of my daughter’s friends. They had one left in the litter that we were going to go see and on the car ride over we were trying to think of some names. I suggested Wilbur. When we got there, we realized he was the fattest of the litter content to just sit there and be loved and eat, a trait that stuck with him throughout his life.
I didn’t have a lot of friends growing up. Most of the time I was content to have my nose in a book. But Charlotte’s Web taught me an important lesson about friendship and how two people, or creatures, can be so vastly different and yet still care for one another.
“Why did you do all this for me?” Wilbur asked Charlotte. “I don’t deserve it. I’ve never done anything for you.”
“You have been my friend,” replied Charlotte. “That in itself is a tremendous thing.