Archive for July, 2009

Charlotte’s Web Tops List of Best-Ever Kids’ Books

New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof put E. B. White’s Charlotte’s Web at the top of his list of best-ever children’s books (7/4/09). Though I wholeheartedly agree with his #1 choice, Nick’s one-line summary kind of misses the point: “The story of the spider who saves her friend, the pig, is the kindest representation of an arthropod in literary history.” Yes, the book is named for Charlotte, but it is really Wilbur’s story. In my view Charlotte’s Web is the story of a pig who transcends his destiny (the dinner table) with the help of his friends, most notably a spider.

Charlotte is the book’s heroine in a narrow sense; more aptly, she is a clever saleswoman, who by weaving superlatives into her web she changes people’s perceptions of Wilbur, from ham to celebrity. Successful (and sincere) pitch woman that she is, Charlotte doesn’t risk anything to achieve these heroic deeds. When her job is done she dies quietly of natural causes, leaving numerous offspring to tend to Wilbur’s celebrity (a legion of arthropod PR agents).

Readers young and old identify with Wilbur. He is our naive inner child who can’t see beyond the pleasures of his food trough to the certain fate that awaits him, and us.  Charlotte is the mother figure, whose love, wisdom and competence help her weave a solution for what appears to be a hopeless situation. (And isn’t it appropriate that a mother needs eight legs!) As readers/children we cannot help but grieve when Charlotte/our mother dies, yet we are mostly relieved that our stand-in Wilbur is spared the ax.

Did Wilbur survive another season? We’ll never know for sure, but EBW could bank on young readers being optimists, so we’ll have to suppose Wilbur’s contract was renewed for as many episodes as a pig’s natural lifespan promises.

As to that lifespan, having just read the immensely enjoyable story of a real-life Wilbur (The Good Pig: The Extraordinary Life of Christopher Hogwood by Sy Montgomery), I can say Wilbur might have looked forward to a 14-season run, give or take. He also might eventually have tipped the scales at 750 pounds and been unable to right himself when he toppled over sideways on a hillside. The very entertaining book depicts the joys and frustrations of raising a pet that weighs as much as a refrigerator and eats as much in a day as one can hold!

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