by E.B. White; ill. by Garth Williams
Growing up, I read very little contemporary children’s literature. Instead, my personal syllabus was full of Victorian and early 20th century authors: Dickens, Alcott, Montgomery, Lewis, Tolkien. I loved their flood of words, the historic texture of their stories, the feeling of richness in the language and the foreignness of the way the characters lived.
The only somewhat modern author I really liked was E.B. White, who still very much pre-dated me. I read his books when I was about 8 or 9; though I hadn’t picked them up since, I had wonderful memories of them and pointed my daughter in their direction when she started expressing an interest in what she calls “long books.”
We took a trip to the library, and she checked out Charlotte’s Web in both print and audio form. Together, we toggled between formats: we listened to the CDs in the car or while doing chores, I read the book to her at bedtime, she read it to me for homework in the afternoons.
I was pleasantly surprised to find that, not only was the book just as enjoyable for me now, but it was a great candidate for a Read Like a Girl review. Here were not one, but two strong female characters, both driving an inspiring story of determination and friendship.
First, there’s Fern, the oddball animal lover. When her father decides to kill Wilbur, the runt of his litter, she intervenes and takes on the fairly daunting task of raising him herself. Later, she arranges to sell him to her uncle so she can continue to visit him. And when her uncle decides that it’s about time to turn Wilbur into ham and bacon, Fern collaborates with the barnyard animals to save his life.
She’s a pretty persistent little girl, is Fern. Even when there’s no easy path to what she really wants, when grownups discourage and disparage her, she prevails with her own unique mix of logic, passion, and action. And through Fern’s wise doctor, who dissuades Fern’s mother from pushing her daughter into traditionally feminine pursuits, White communicates an inspiring message to girl readers: Fern may not be a “typical” girl, but she’s fine just as she is.
In other words, Fern shows readers that it takes all kinds of girls to make the world go ’round. A girl like Fern–one who’s somewhat solitary, who loves animals and nature, who sticks to her guns when something important is at stake–is valuable and precious.
Second, there’s Charlotte the spider. Bored and somewhat cynical when we first meet her, she forms an attachment to Wilbur and ends up his greatest champion. Charlotte is smart, creative, and both physically and mentally strong. She is completely unapologetic about who she is and exudes a natural authority over the other animals. She teaches Wilbur some of the book’s most important lessons about courage, friendship, and persistence.
Charlotte, in short, is a leader, and a very savvy one at that. She knows how and when to use tough love (to snap Wilbur out of depression), sly reasoning (to get Templeton on board with her plan), and straightforward direction (to give the other animals focus) to accomplish an important purpose.
Her presence plants the idea in young girl’s heads that women can lead, and lead effectively. That even someone who is seemingly insignificant can galvanize a group to do something good.
“It’s good to be who you are, even if you’re not like other girls” and “You can be a leader”: two inspiring messages that girls don’t often hear from our culture, but they can hear them from Charlotte’s Web.