Two great books - both children's classics, and both simply great books for any reader - had milestone birthdays this year. A Wrinkle In Time
, which I've blogged about before
, is now 50 years old. And Charlotte's Web
, one of my top-five favourite books of all time, turns 60. This adaptation from an upcoming book by Michael Sims tells the story of how E. B. White came to write about a pig, a spider, a barn, and a girl named Fern.
Inevitably, though, the morality of farming troubled White, especially his betrayal of a pig’s trust when he suddenly turned from provider to executioner. In the fall of 1947, a pig he had planned to slaughter became ill, and White labored heroically but failed to save its life, a sad farce he immortalized in his 1948 essay “Death of a Pig.” In his animal-populated imagination, however, the pig lived on. White began to envision stories in which the poor animal’s life might be endangered — only this time it would survive.
Often in his barn White stopped to admire the artistry of a particular spider, and one evening he watched her spin an egg sac in a web over the doorway. When she didn’t return during the next few nights, he cut down the sac, which seemed to be woven of peach-colored cotton candy, and took it along in a small box to his New York apartment. Eventually tiny air holes in the box served as escape hatches for hundreds of spiderlings who then drifted around the room on silken filaments.
Gradually White tried to unite the potent images that cavorted in his imagination, but at first failed because he knew so little about spiders. He understood the squabbles of geese and the muddy zest of pigs because they filled his days at the farm, but through what secret alchemy were spiders drawing in the air?
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.”
If you're a Charlotte
fan, like me, you'll want to check out The Annotated Charlotte's Web
. Allan gave it to me as part of a birthday present many years back, and I'm planning to re-read it this summer.
It is not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer. Charlotte was both.
- E. B. White, final sentence of Charlotte's Web
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