Happy 70th Birthday Charlotte!

Let us tip our hats to Charlotte’s Web, one of the most beloved children’s books of all time. Written by E.B White, Charlotte’s Web was published in 1952 and immediately was deemed a classic. One reviewer wrote.

What the book is about is friendship on earth, affection and protection, adventure and miracle, life and death, trust and treachery, pleasure and pain, and the passing of time…What it all proves…is that human beings must always be on the watch for the coming of wonders…As a piece of work it is just about perfect.

Where did E.B. White (who went by the name Andy) get the idea for his famous story?

Andy lived on a farm in Maine immersed in the rhythm of the seasons and caring for animals. One day, his pig took sick and died. If only he could have saved the pig’s life! Another idea flickered in his mind. If only he could write an animal story in which a pig was miraculously saved. 

Knowledgeable about spider webs that hung in the barn, White began to research the life cycle of spiders. Could a spider save the life of a pig?

In October 1949 he wrote to his publisher: “My next book is in sight. I look at it every day. I keep it in a carton, as you would a kitten.”

By 1951, the rough draft was completed and put aside to “ripen”.

His handwritten draft shows how he struggled with the first line.

#1 Charlotte was a gray spider who lived in the doorway of a barn.

#2 I shall speak first of Wilbur.

#3 A barn can have a horse in it, and a barn can have a cow in it, and a barn can have hens scratching in the chaff and swallows flying in and out through the door but if a barn hasn’t got a pig in it, it is hardly worth talking about.

#4 At midnight, John Arable pulled his boots on, lit a lantern, and walked to the hog house.

#5 Where’s Papa going with that hand ax?

Finally, he refined the famous first line. Where is Papa going with that ax?

Revisions took another year. Garth Williams was hired to illustrate. He struggled to create a loveable spider face.

Charlotte’s Web went on to win the Newbery Honor, one of the highest awards in children’s literature. Andy recorded the audiobook, using seventeen takes to read the chapter “Last Day” when Charlotte dies. The recording is still sold on the internet.

“It’s ridiculous,” he commented, “a grown man reading a book that he wrote and being unable to read it aloud because of tears.”

The book has sold more than 45 million copies and has been translated into 23 languages.

Here’s an idea for a Christmas present. Buy Charlotte’s Web for a child you know. Perhaps you can read it aloud to that child. If you cry at the end, E.B White would understand.

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