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Farmyard magic: Charlotte’s Web at 60

The New York Times writes about the 60th anniversary of Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White. As the article’s headline says, this novel is indeed some book. So simple, so easy to read, so engaging for anyone reading or listening to someone read aloud. Earlier this year, I was reading Charlotte’s Web to my six-year-old daughter and my nine-year-old daughter, who had had the book read to her three years ago, kept creeping into her sister’s bedroom and listening. It’s an easy book to return to.

I think one of the most intriguing aspects of Charlotte’s Web is that it’s set on a farm and most children (and adults too) never set foot on a real farm. The major farmyard animals are frequently featured in books but not spiders, hidden away in the dusty corners of barns.

So White went to work researching spider life. He borrowed science books from the New York Public Library and even conferred with an arachnologist at the American Museum of Natural History, deciphering jargon and diagrams until he understood how the spinnerets on his barn spider’s abdomen spun silk and how she would anchor the guy-lines for a web and what a poignantly brief time she would live after laying her eggs. As “Charlotte’s Web” took form in his mind, White described invertebrate magic both from what he had read and from what he had witnessed. When he wrote the tender scene of her children’s ballooning forth on their web filaments, trusting to fate and a warm breeze, he had only to describe what he had seen in his apartment. “Remember that writing is translation,” he advised a college student during this period, “and the opus to be translated is yourself.”

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