Book Review: Charlotte’s Web
I tend to shy away from children’s books that have death as a major plot point, as it is a difficult topic to address sensitively for children. However, a few books do manage to cope with death in a manner appropriate for children while still maintaining an engaging storyline; “Charlotte’s Web,” by E.B. White, is one of those books.
The story revolves around a pig named Wilbur. Wilbur is the runt of his litter and is saved by an animal-loving girl named Fern. Fern helps to raise Wilbur. However, Fern’s father soon sells Wilbur to a farm down the road. In his new home, Wilbur befriends the lively barnyard animals, including an intelligent spider named Charlotte. As Wilbur settles into his new life on the farm, he learns that the farmer is planning to slaughter him come December for Christmas dinner. Charlotte vows to save her new friend and begins to weave exclamatory messages into her web such as “SOME PIG” and “RADIANT.” Charlotte’s plan seems to work as Wilbur’s fame spreads and brings prestige to the farmer, who decides to spare Wilbur’s life and show him in the county fair. Wilbur, with Charlotte’s help, wins a special award in the county fair and earns himself a life of leisure and fame back home at the barnyard.
It becomes apparent that Charlotte has aged greatly over the months, and she reveals to Wilbur that soon she will make her egg sac and die. She explains to him that this is the natural way of spiders. Wilbur is very sad to lose his friend, and after Charlotte passes, he and Fern guard her eggs protectively until they hatch in the spring. Several of Charlotte’s baby spiders choose to stay with Wilbur after they hatch, and Fern and Wilbur tell them of their mother’s adventures, thus passing on what they’ve learned about the cycle of life.
There is a lot of humor and character in this story, from Fern’s sweet nature, to Wilbur’s inquisitiveness, to the variety of the barnyard cast. Illustrations by Garth Williams give all the characters life in a sweet and whimsical way. However, the true greatness of this story rests in its depiction of friendship: Fern raising baby Wilbur and dutifully visiting him in his new home, Charlotte promising to help save Wilbur, even as she is aging and tiring, and Wilbur and Fern protectively guarding Charlotte’s precious eggs. This book deals with Charlotte’s death in a sensitive fashion, helping young readers to understand that death is a natural part of a long life.
Because of the nature of the book, it is better suited for 9- to 12-year-olds who could easily read the book on their own and be able to understand and discuss the themes. This is a perfect story for kids who are sensitive animal lovers and ready to explore life’s cycle. “Charlotte’s Web” is available here.