Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Happy Birthday, Charlotte's Web

Read Charlotte Canelli's column in the March 10, 2012 edition of the Norwood Transcript and Bulletin or listen to the podcast on SoundCloud. Podcasts are archived on the Voices from the Library page of the library website. Charlotte Canelli is the Library Director at the Morrill Memorial Library in Norwood. From the Library - Happy Birthday Charlotte's Web! by Charlotte Canelli
I share my sixtieth birthday this year with another Charlotte. Charlotte A. Cavatica, that is. You know her, of course, as the grey spider in what is undoubtedly one of the most famous children’s books written, Charlotte’s Web by E. B. White.

The Latin or scientific name for the barn spider is Araneus Cavaticus and while White never fully explains Charlotte’s second initial we can imagine what her full name must be.

Author E. B. White was 53 years old when Charlotte’s Web was published. He spent his childhood in Mount Vernon, New York and was always a shy and reserved boy and man. It is understandable that he spent hours reflecting and musing and observing the world around him at his family’s homes in New York and Maine.

Both Charlotte's Web and I were, of course, conceived before our birth year of 1952. Sometime in 1949, three years before the book was published, E. B. White spent hours watching a small spider spin a web and, eventually, an egg sac. The spider disappeared in the chilly fall air and White cut down the sac and placed it into a small box in which he had cut small air holes. It was weeks later when baby spiders escaped through the holes in the box to make dozens of webs of their own.

And the rest is history. Literary and otherwise.

After finishing the first draft in 1951, White actually put the book down for a year. He felt that it needed to rest, or incubate. He handed the book to his editor Ursula Nordstrom one day, “out of the blue” in 1952. Obviously impressed, Nordstrom recommended that the book be published and it was in print on October 15, 1952.

Charlotte’s Web was not only White’s most famous book but it has been translated into over 27 languages and has sold over 45 million copies. It is, hands down, a favorite among children, parents, teachers and librarians around the world. Before the Harry Potter books, Charlotte’s Web would have been considered the number one favorite children’s book. For some of us, it still is.

Charlotte was White’s most famous character but two of his other books were also lauded as enduring children’s books, Stuart Little (1945) and The Trumpet and the Swan (1973). Interestingly, one of the most influential critics of children’s literature, the retired but significant children’s librarian, Anne Carroll Moore, of the New York Public Library, had a less-than-enthusiastic response to both Stuart Little and Charlotte’s Web. (Fern’s character was “underdeveloped.”) Moore was never afraid to use her stamp which stated “Not Recommended for Purchase by Expert” and was one of the most powerful book reviewers of children’s literature in the first half of the 20th century. White’s books were bestsellers anyway.

What I never knew before researching for this column is that E. B. White, or Elwyn Brooks White (or Andy, as he was called most of his adult life) was the editor of the revised edition of the “Elements of Style”, published by William Strunk in 1959. (The book is also known as "Strunk and White.") Any one of us growing up in the 60s and 70s and learning to write effectively remember this handbook of grammar and style of English writing with about as little fondness as we remember cafeteria lunches. But remember it, we do. And learn from it, we have.

The entire story of E. B. White and his books was just published last year in 2011 by Michael Sims. In “The Story of Charlotte’s Web: E.B.White’s Eccentric Life in Nature and the Birth of an American Classic,” Sims spends more than half the book describing White’s life on the property of his childhood town in New York, in New York City working for The New Yorker Magazine and on the farms in Maine where he spent many years of his life, particularly the last thirty of them. (White died of Alzheimer’s in 1985 at the age of 86 in Brooklin, Maine.) Sims explains White’s courtship, partnership and marriage to Katherine Angell, writer and fiction editor of the New Yorker magazine, from 1925-1960. The New Yorker was a publication he richly influenced with his friend and fellow author and humorist, James Thurber.

It stands to reason, then, that one of my favorite children’s movies is Charlotte’s Web, released in 1973 several years after I had graduated from high school. I was busy becoming an adult at that time and didn’t discover the film for years until the mid 80s when my own children were young. Interestingly too, the film had an amazing resurgence of popularity 21 years after its release. In 1994 it was one of the best-selling titles of the year. It seems that White’s devoted following of adults were rediscovering the story along with their children.

White and his wife unfortunately did not appreciate the Hanna-Barbera version of Charlotte’s Web and would have preferred something more refined with the music of Mozart as the soundtrack. I, on the other hand, loved cuddling with my children on the couch as we sang along with Debbie Reynolds (Charlotte), Henry Gibson (Wilbur), Paul Lynde (Templeton), and Agnes Moorehead (the Goose.) “A Veritable Smorgasbord”, “I Can Talk” and “Zuckerman’s Famous Pig” will always be part of my repertoire.

“Fine swine, wish he was mine. What if he’s not so big! He’s some terrific, radiant, humble, thingamajig of a fine phenomenon … Zuckerman’s famous pig!”

If you would like to reserve any of the titles mentioned in this column, please call the Reference or Information desks of the library, 781-799-0200 or reserve them in the Minuteman Library catalog.