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Charlotte's Web is a children's novel by American author E. B. White and illustrated by Garth Williams; it was published on October 15, 1952, by Harper & Brothers. The novel tells the story of a livestock pig named Wilbur and his friendship with a barn spider named Charlotte. When Wilbur is in danger of being slaughtered by the farmer, Charlotte writes messages praising Wilbur (such as "Some Pig") in her web in order to persuade the farmer to let him live.
Written in White's dry, low-key manner, Charlotte's Web is considered a classic of children's literature, enjoyable to adults as well as children. The description of the experience of swinging on a rope swing at the farm is an often cited example of rhythm in writing, as the pace of the sentences reflects the motion of the swing. In 2000, Publishers Weekly listed the book as the best-selling children's paperback of all time.
Charlotte's Web was adapted into an animated feature by Hanna-Barbera Productions and Sagittarius Productions in 1973. Paramount released a direct-to-video sequel, Charlotte's Web 2: Wilbur's Great Adventure, in the U.S. in 2003 (Universal released the film internationally). A live-action film version of E. B. White's original story was released in 2006. A video game based on this adaption was also released in 2006.
After her father spares the life of a piglet from culling it as runt of the litter, a little girl named Fern Arable nurtures the piglet lovingly, naming him Wilbur. On greater maturity, Wilbur is sold to Fern's uncle, Homer Zuckerman, in whose barnyard he is left yearning for companionship but is snubbed by other barn animals, until befriended by a barn spider named Charlotte, living on a web overlooking Wilbur's enclosure. Upon Wilbur's discovery that he is intended for slaughter, she promises to hatch a plan guaranteed to spare his life. Accordingly, she secretly weaves praise of him into her web, attracting publicity among Zuckerman's neighbors who attribute the praise to divine intervention. As time passes, more inscriptions appear on Charlotte's webs, increasing his renown. Therefore, Wilbur is entered in the county fair, accompanied by Charlotte and the rat Templeton, whom she employs in gathering inspiration for her messages. There, Charlotte spins an egg sac containing her 514 unborn children, and Wilbur, despite winning no prizes, is later celebrated by the fair's staff and visitors (thus made too prestigious alive to justify killing him). Exhausted apparently by laying eggs, Charlotte remains at the fair and dies shortly following Wilbur's departure. Having returned to Zuckerman's farm, Wilbur guards Charlotte's egg sac and is saddened further when the new spiders depart shortly after hatching. The three smallest remain, however, and take up residence in the doorway where Charlotte used to live. Pleased at finding new friends, Wilbur names one of them Nellie, while the remaining two name themselves Joy and Aranea. The book then concludes by mentioning that more generations of spiders kept him company in subsequent years.
Death is a major theme seen throughout Charlotte's Web and is brought forth by that of the spider, Charlotte's, web. According to Norton D. Kinghorn, Charlotte's web acts as a barrier that separates two worlds. These worlds are that of life and death. Scholar Amy Ratelle says that through Charlotte's continual killing and eating of flies throughout the novel, White makes the concept of death normal for Wilbur and for the readers. Wilbur constantly has death on his mind at night when he is worrying over whether or not he will be made into meat for humans to consume, but as scholar Sophie Mills notes, Wilbur is able to avoid death. Even though Wilbur is able to escape his death, Charlotte, the spider who takes care of Wilbur, is not able to escape her own death. Charlotte passes away, but according to Trudelle H. Thomas, "Yet even in the face of death, life continues and ultimate goodness wins out". Jordan Anne Deveraux explains that E.B. White discusses a few realities of death. From the novel, readers learn that death can be delayed, but it cannot be avoided forever.
For Norton D. Kinghorn, Charlotte's web also acts as a signifier of change. The change Kinghorn refers to is that of both the human world and the farm/barn world. For both of these worlds change is something that cannot be avoided. Along with the changing of the seasons throughout the novel, the characters also go through their own changes. Jordan Anne Deveraux also explains that Wilbur and Fern each go through their changes to transition from childhood closer to adulthood throughout the novel. This is evidenced by Wilbur accepting death and Fern giving up her dolls. Wilbur grows throughout the novel, allowing him to become the caretaker of Charlotte's children just as she was a caretaker for him, as is explained by scholar Sue Misheff. But rather than accept the changes that are forced upon them, according to Sophie Mills, the characters aim to go beyond the limits of change. In a different way, Wilbur goes through a change when he switches locations. Amy Ratelle explains that when he moves from Fern's house to Homer Zuckerman's farm, Wilbur goes from being a loved pet to a farm animal.
Fern, the little girl in the novel, goes from being a child to being more of an adult. As she goes through this change, Kinghorn notes that it can also be considered a fall from innocence. Wilbur also starts out young and innocent at the beginning of the novel. A comparison is drawn between the innocence and youth of Fern and Wilbur. Sophie Mills states that the two characters can identify with one another. Both Wilbur and Fern are, at first, horrified by the realization that life must end; however, by the end of the novel, both characters learn to accept that everything must die. According to Matthew Scully, the novel presents the difference in the world view of adults versus the world view of children. Children, such as Fern, believe killing another for food is wrong, while adults have learned to justify this action.
Charlotte's Web was published three years after White began writing it. White's editor Ursula Nordstrom said that one day in 1952, E. B. White arrived at her office and handed her a new manuscript, the only copy of Charlotte's Web then in existence, which she read soon after and enjoyed.
Since White published Death of a Pig in 1948, an account of his own failure to save a sick pig (bought for butchering), Charlotte's Web can be seen as White's attempt "to save his pig in retrospect". White's overall motivation for the book has not been revealed and he has written: "I haven't told why I wrote the book, but I haven't told you why I sneeze, either. A book is a sneeze".
When White met the spider who originally inspired Charlotte, he called her Charlotte Epeira (after Epeira sclopetaria, the Grey Cross spider, now known as Larinioides sclopetarius), before discovering that the more modern name for that genus was Aranea. In the novel, Charlotte gives her full name as "Charlotte A. Cavatica", revealing her as a barn spider, an orb-weaver with the scientific name Araneus cavaticus.
The arachnid anatomical terms (mentioned in the beginning of chapter nine) and other information that White used, came mostly from American Spiders by Willis J. Gertsch and The Spider Book by John Henry Comstock, both of which combine a sense of poetry with scientific fact. White incorporated details from Comstock's accounts of baby spiders, most notably the "flight" of the young spiders on silken parachutes. White sent Gertsch’s book to illustrator Garth Williams. Williams’ initial drawings depicted a spider with a woman’s face, and White suggested that he simply draw a realistic spider instead.
White originally opened the novel with an introduction of Wilbur and the barnyard (which later became the third chapter) but decided to begin the novel by introducing Fern and her family on the first page. White’s publishers were at one point concerned with the book’s ending and tried to get White to change it.
Charlotte's Web has become White's most famous book; but White treasured his privacy and that of the farmyard and barn that helped inspire the novel, which have been kept off limits to the public according to his wishes.
Charlotte's Web was generally well-reviewed when it was released. In The New York Times, Eudora Welty wrote, "As a piece of work it is just about perfect, and just about magical in the way it is done." Aside from its paperback sales, Charlotte's Web is 78th on the all-time bestselling hardback book list. According to publicity for the 2006 film adaptation (see below), the book has sold more than 45 million copies and been translated into 23 languages. It was a Newbery Honor book for 1953, losing to Secret of the Andes by Ann Nolan Clark for the medal. In 1970, White won the Laura Ingalls Wilder Medal, a major prize in the field of children's literature, for Charlotte's Web, along with his first children's book, Stuart Little, published in 1945. Seth Lerer, in his book Children’s Literature, finds that Charlotte represents female authorship and creativity, and compares her to other female characters in children’s literature such as Jo March in Little Women and Mary Lennox in The Secret Garden. Nancy Larrick brings to attention the "startling note of realism" in the opening line, "Where's Papa going with that Ax?"
Illustrator Henry Cole expressed his deep childhood appreciation of the characters and story, and calls Garth Williams' illustrations full of “sensitivity, warmth, humor, and intelligence.” Illustrator Diana Cain Bluthenthal states that Williams' illustrations inspired and influenced her.
There is an unabridged audio book read by White himself which reappeared decades after it had originally been recorded. Newsweek writes that White reads the story "without artifice and with a mellow charm," and that "White also has a plangency that will make you weep, so don't listen (at least, not to the sad parts) while driving." Joe Berk, president of Pathway Sound, had recorded Charlotte's Web with White in White’s neighbor's house in Maine (which Berk describes as an especially memorable experience) and released the book in LP. Bantam released Charlotte’s Web alongside Stuart Little on CD in 1991, digitally remastered, having acquired the two of them for rather a large amount.
In 2005, a school teacher in California conceived of a project for her class in which they would send out hundreds of drawings of spiders (each representing Charlotte’s child Aranea going out into the world so that she can return and tell Wilbur of what she has seen) with accompanying letters; they ended up visiting a large number of parks, monuments, and museums, and were hosted by and/or prompted responses from celebrities and politicians such as John Travolta and then-First Lady Laura Bush.
In 2003 Charlotte's Web was listed at number 170 on the BBC's The Big Read poll of the UK's 200 "best-loved novels." A 2004 study found that Charlotte's Web was a common read-aloud book for third-graders in schools in San Diego County, California. Based on a 2007 online poll, the National Education Association named the book one of its "Teachers' Top 100 Books for Children." It was one of the "Top 100 Chapter Books" of all time in a 2012 poll by School Library Journal.
Its awards and nominations include:
The book was adapted into an animated feature of the same name in 1973 by Hanna-Barbera Productions and Sagittarius Productions with a score by the Sherman Brothers. In 2003, a direct-to-video sequel of that film, Charlotte's Web 2: Wilbur's Great Adventure, was released by Paramount Pictures. In 2006, Paramount Pictures, with Walden Media, Kerner Entertainment Company, and Nickelodeon Movies, produced a live-action/animated adaptation starring Dakota Fanning as Fern and the voice of Julia Roberts as Charlotte, released on December 15, 2006.
A musical production was created with music and lyrics by Charles Strouse.
A video game of the 2006 film was developed by Backbone Entertainment and published by THQ and Sega, and released on December 12, 2006, for the Game Boy Advance, Nintendo DS, PlayStation 2 and PC.