True Confession: I have never read Charlotte’s Web before this year.
Yes, I am a children’s book author admitting to never having read one of the greatest pieces of children’s literature of all time. Okay, yes, I’ve only been a children’s book author since June 2015, when I wrote my first picture book manuscript. Yet somehow that doesn’t make me feel less chagrined about the situation.
Since I’m coming clean, the truth is there are many kidlit classic books I have never reads. Some books and authors I have never even heard of when I’m perusing kidlit writing websites.
For example, I did not know who Ursula Le Guin was when she died on January 22, 2018. Her name popped up everywhere on the writing and entertainment websites I read. I ended up checking out this article in particular, Mapping the Pop Culture Influence of Ursula K Le Guin’s Earthsea Books, and I was shocked to learn that her stories had been a precursor to Harry Potter.
As a huge Harry Potter fan, how is it I had never heard of Le Guin before? Who else haven’t I heard of that I should?
At least I’m quite familiar with EB White and Charlotte’s Web. Growing up as a child in the 80s, I’d watched the cartoon version of the story dozens of times, but somehow I never managed to read the story.
When I think about it, I have no good reason why, other than I was reading other books: Sweet Valley Twins, Babysitters Club, Fabulous Five, and the Taffy Sinclair books just to name a few. All of these titles are series, so perhaps because I had multiple new books to read every month, I never needed to venture out to the classics.
That’s not to say I never read any of the classics growing up. The three that I distinctly remember are: Misty of Chincoteague and Sea Star: Orphan of Chincoteague, both by Marguerite Henry, and Black Beauty by Anna Sewell. Yes, like most little girls, I had a thing for horses. I suppose I still do.
I also racked up quite a few more kidlit classics while in college when I took Intro to Children’s Literature my freshman year. We studied fairy tales (the gruesome original versions), Treasure Island, Peter Pan, Little Women, and The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe, to name a few.
I can still vividly recall the moment in class when my entire life changed because of a book. Mrs. Spore, my teacher, lead us in a discussion of the allegorical representation of Aslan the Lion in The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe. Being a nearly-straight-A student, I raised my hand and proudly announced Aslan represented the struggle of good versus evil.
Mrs. Spore shook her head. “Too simple,” she said. “Aslan is much more than that.”
The guy next to me raised his hand. “Jesus Christ,” he said.
BOOM! There goes my head in an explosion of everything I thought I knew about the world. 13 years of Catholic education (K-12), and I had made zero connection to what C.S. Lewis was really telling us in his story.
Although that Intro to Children’s Lit class was my favorite class throughout all of college, anything in children’s literature/publishing did not seem a viable career option at that point. I allowed myself to get sucked down the rabbit hole of job security, earnings potential, and societal expectations, and ended up with a PhD in quantitative psychology instead.
So now, as a psychology professor turned kidlit writer, I find myself immersed in reading as much kidlit as possible. In January, on advice from an editor at Simon & Schuster, I checked out The Incredible Journey from my library. The editor recommended this book because I write about dogs. The writing was beautiful and the pacing a touch slow for modern reading standards (in my opinion). Still, I cried tears of joy during the last few pages.
Wanting to continue with reading kidlit classics, I then picked up Charlotte’s Web from the library. This is a book that should be required reading for all children and adults. The story is extraordinary in so many ways.
E.B. White is a master of word choice and description, with sensory details, rich visuals, and emotionally engaging characters that pull you immediately into the story. Just read the first sentence:
“Where’s Papa going with that ax?” asked Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast.
Tell me you don’t want to read more!
Charlotte’s Web is not just about the writing, either. The illustrations by Garth Williams are adorable. Look at this little pig:
Or “puppy pig,” as my 21-year-old niece called him when I sent her an illustration as an example of why I was loving this book so much.
If you’ve ever read my blog before, you know how much I LOVE dogs! Give me a puppy pig and write him into a story where he finds out he’s going to die and you have me hooked.
The way E.B. White connected me to Wilbur the pig is genius. Wilbur loves Fern and misses her when she’s at school. He wants a barnyard friend to play with, but the other animals shun him. He finds out he’s going to die and becomes hysterical because he loves sitting in his pile of mud and slopping around his pigpen so much. Then, Wilbur begins to believe he is someone special simply because Charlotte, his spider friend, believes in him.
There’s also this sentence in the last chapter about Fern, the little girl who initially saved Wilbur the pig from Papa’s ax:
She was growing up, and was careful to avoid childish things, like sitting on a milk stool near a pigpen.
These words of E.B. White will stay in my heart forever.
I couldn’t help but cry when I read that sentence. They were tears of both joy and sadness. Joy because the way I live my life now, embracing the things that truly matter to me, such as loving my husband and family, playing with dogs, walking in the forest, reading and writing stories, and sitting on a stool near a pigpen are things I do every single day.
Okay, well maybe not literally every day sitting on a stool near a pigpen, but thinks to one of my wonderful friends in Norfolk, I do occasionally get to sit in a barnyard and play with farm animals.
There was also sadness for the millions of children who grow up and may never again recapture the feelings of wonder they experienced during childhood. Just like I did in college, they go down the rabbit hole of adulthood, and I don’t know if they ever find their way out. I hope they do. I pray they do. And I write stories to show how I made my way out.
Thank you for reading my blog! Your support is always appreciated. If anyone is interested in more Charlotte’s Web writings and illustrations, I’ve been posting selections on Twitter as part of my #365DaysofKidLit Challenge. You can look for me on Twitter with the handle @KellyKandra. I also included selections from The Incredibly Journey and The Original Adventures of Hank the Cowdog, plus several picture books.
As an end note, I’m looking to read as many of the Hank the Cowdog books as possible without having to buy them (you know, minimalist and all). The inter-library loan only offers a few, so if anyone out there can give me access to more copies, I would be ever grateful.