Why Does Charlotte's Web Continue to Appeal to Readers? (Classic Remarks)

Classic Remarks

What Is Classic Remarks?

Classic Remarks is a meme hosted here at Pages Unbound that poses questions each Friday about classic literature and asks participants to engage in ongoing discussions surrounding not only themes in the novels but also questions about canon formation, the “timelessness” of literature, and modes of interpretation.

How Can I Participate?

Leave your link to your post on your own blog in the comments below. And feel free to comment with your thoughts even if you are not officially participating with a full post!

You can find more information and the list of weekly prompts here.

(Readers who like past prompts but missed them have also answered them on their blog later and linked back to us at Pages Unbound, so feel free to do that, too!)

This Week’s Prompt:

Charlotte’s Web by E. B. White took the number one spot on the School Library Journal’s 2012 list of Top 100 chapter books.  Why do you think this book continues to appeal to readers?

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Why Charlotte's Web continues to appeal to readers

This is an interesting question because a while ago I saw someone specifically call out Charlotte’s Web as a book that should no longer be taught in the classroom because today’s students aren’t white girls growing up on farms and have nothing to relate to in the novel.  This argument, of course, overlooks that Charlotte’s Web does not have Fern as a protagonist, and although the story is set on a farm, it’s not about growing up on one. The protagonist is Wilbur (a pig), and the story is about his friendship with Charlotte (a spider), his unwanted confrontation with death, and the lessons he learns about believing in himself and taking control of his destiny.

None of us are animals, and few of us live(d) on farms, but the themes addressed in the book are nearly universal.  All of us need friends, some of whom we may find in unlikely places, and all of us need will eventually need to deal with the question of death, whether its our own or that of a loved one or a pet (hopefully the latter types are more common for the young target audience of the novel).

The book is oftentimes silly and borders on the fanciful (animals who can read, spell, and communicate among themselves!), but overall I think it appeals to readers simply because it’s moving.  Wilbur’s fear and sense of betrayal at learning of his impending planned death are real and valid; readers feel with him that he’s too young to die and he has so much left to do, think, and experience.  And his friendship with Charlotte, who genuinely believes he is amazing even if he, in fact, does not do anything particularly noteworthy, is inspirational.  We all need friends who love as we are while motivating us to be better, who believe that we’re special simply because we are ourselves.  And when that friendship ends with Charlotte’s natural death, it’s understandable because it actually is her time to go, but it’s still tragic.  Charlotte’s Web is one of the few books that has made me cry every time I’ve read it.  The ending is tempered with hope and the renewal of life, of course, when Wilbur meets Charlotte’s children.

While I find the rural setting of the book charming, and it obviously provides the set-up for why someone would be planning to kill Wilbur (that happens on farms in ways it does not really happen elsewhere), the book clearly is not about farms or farmers.  In a short space, E. B. White manages to movingly address sweeping and universal themes, making readers confront their own questions and fears about death and how they spend their time on this earth.


26 thoughts on “Why Does Charlotte's Web Continue to Appeal to Readers? (Classic Remarks)

  1. Davida Chazan says:

    There’s also the social aspect of this book which teaches children that even if other look at them and only see their disabilities, they are still worthy of love and can become contributing members of society. At least, that’s what I always thought.


      • Davida Chazan says:

        Disabled might not be the right word, but he is rejected, and unwanted, or unaccepted because he isn’t as big and strong as the other pigs in the litter. He’s seen as “less than” the other pigs because of his physical appearance. I always thought of that as a metaphor.


  2. Captain's Quarters says:

    I cry every time I read this book too! And the animated movie is just fantastic. It is a fantastic school book. Now I am going to be singing Zuckerman’s Famous Pig all day. Thanks?
    x The Captain


  3. Never Not Reading says:

    Oooo, I agree so much! Just because Charlotte’s Web is set on a farm doesn’t mean we have to throw it out! There’s a reason kids continue to love it. I think the friendship themes are definitely part of it, as is the kooky cast of characters. I would also argue that because the book is so beloved, teachers are able to guide kids more effectively through the deeper elements and themes because (whispers) elementary teachers aren’t literary experts and are often keeping one page ahead of the kids. If we’re going to throw out books by white authors in elementary school, this isn’t the one I would pick. For example, my school *still* reads Sarah Plain and Tall.


    • Briana | Pages Unbound says:

      I was kind of surprised when I saw people hating on the book because being set on a farm makes it irrelevant. Like, I don’t live in Chicago or New York, but does that make books in big cities irrelevant??? You can read about things that aren’t your exact experience, and that’s often a big draw of reading–learning new things and experiencing new places! Yes, definitely get kids books that DO represent or relate to them, too, but…we shouldn’t read it because it takes place on a farm? Wild.

      Yes! I think having a book many kids like and that the teacher probably also likes and knows something about is very helpful for teaching, too!

      I can never remember if I read Sarah Plain and Tall as a kid or just knew about it. I *think* we may also have read it in school? Clearly it wasn’t memorable the way Charlotte’s Web was for me!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Never Not Reading says:

        Sarah Plain and Tall is about a pioneer family, and the dad marries the governess. It’s a fine book, I suppose, but I just feel that if we’re going to do Historical Fiction we could read something that depicts something other than the history of white America.


  4. Faith E. Hough says:

    This is really cool, Brianna! I just found your site earlier this week, but I’ll definitely be posting something for a future question of the week!
    I never really liked Charlotte’s Web all that much as a kid–I was definitely prejudiced from the get-go because my dad told me the spider died before I started. :/ But I have read it aloud twice to my children (I have seven kids, so there were quite a few years in between readings), and one of the things that surprised me (besides the absolutely stellar writing) was how it IS more like their life than many contemporary books. With a surge in interest in “backyard farming,” a lot of more rural kids like mine have a hard time finding modern books whose characters live like they do. That said, we bought our first pig this year (though it’ll be raised on my brother-in-law’s farm, not our own land), so I’m not going to be reading Charlotte’s Web again in the very near future!!


    • Briana | Pages Unbound says:

      Ah, I don’t know how I would have reacted if someone told me Charlotte died before I’d even read it! I probably wouldn’t have been thrilled either. Besides the fact that it’s SAD, it’s also a major spoiler!

      I think this is a great reminder that “relatable” is, of course, relative, and saying things like “no one relates to a book set on a farm” is ridiculous. Some people live in rural areas. Some people live on farms! (And obviously you can relate to me than just the literal setting of the book. If that weren’t true, no one would read old classics or even historical fiction.)


  5. Jackie B @ Death by Tsundoku says:

    When I was a child, reading this for the first time, I didn’t realize Fern wasn’t the protagonist until my teacher opened my eyes to the fact. I don’t know why. Perhaps I connected to Fern, as she was about my age and had a pet pig where I had a pet dog? Perhaps it’s because she was introduced long before Wilbur and Charlotte started to speak to each other? I’m not certain. But I do know I was wrong — and I’m surprised to think anyone who teaches English would make the same mistake I did at 9-years-old.

    The themes of this book are beautiful. I’d love to do an indepth study of this text with others to explore the themes they all see. I know that I’m missing connections others have with Charlotte’s Web. For example, in my recent re-read I connected more with the passage of Mrs. Arable visiting the Doctor; she was concerned her little girl didn’t like boys yet. I had always overlooked this passage. But now that I’m growing my own family, I realize how had it must be for a mother to see their youngest spending all their time alone sitting in a barn. Now I see Mrs. Arable as a much deeper character than she was before.

    Gosh, I cannot imagine NOT teaching this book to children.

    My Classic Remarks for this week: https://deathbytsundoku.com/classic-remarks-5-reasons-why-charlottes-web-is-timeless/

    (Okay, I know Krysta already found my post, but this feels like a link-up, so I am!)


    • Briana | Pages Unbound says:

      That is a very good point I didn’t even think about initially. The people critiquing it for being about living on a farm are missing that it’s…not actually about Fern!

      I can’t remember from the articles I was reading, but some of the people might not actually be English teachers, just aggrieved parents who were able to get a journalistic platform. “How dare they make my kid read Charlotte’s Web! We don’t live on a farm!”

      That’s also a great point about the Doctor scene. As a kid, I was all, “Leave Fern alone!” As an adult, I can see how your kid apparently having zero friends would be concerning.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Jackie B @ Death by Tsundoku says:

        Aggrieved parents are so… fascinating. I don’t know how they find the energy to become heard on all sorts of random platforms. Yeah, I could completely see a parent not realizing the Fern isn’t the protagonist. Particularly one who would protest the value of reading Charlotte’s Web. Obviously, not a bibliophile.


            • Briana | Pages Unbound says:

              They’re not diverse and not relatable.

              Personally, most of my favorite books as a kid were old: Charlotte’s Web, The Secret Garden, The Chronicles of Narnia, Anne of Green Gables. If other people hate them, fine, but this notion everyone hates them drives me up the wall,

              Plus, it is entirely possible to read both old and new books.

              Liked by 1 person

            • Jackie B @ Death by Tsundoku says:

              Pft. I love older stories. I find many of them more relatable than newer children’s books, if only because they are stories based on classic themes and tropes. I love the innocence of them. Many more modern stories I find *harder* to relate to as they are becoming more and more diverse. Which is great! I’m learning a ton. But I am definitely a ciswhite woman.


            • Briana | Pages Unbound says:

              Yes, I love diverse stories and I love that children’s books are addressing tougher themes, but I also definitely would not have related in any way to a book about parents with drug abuse problems or parents in jail or kids struggling with depression, etc.

              Liked by 1 person

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