Sixty years ago E.B. White wrote a book. And that book continues to fascinate readers the world over.

“Where's Papa going with that ax?” could well qualify as the most deceptively simple line with which a children's novel begins. The novel is E.B. White's Charlotte's Web, first published in 1952 and celebrating its 60 year of publication this year.

Eight-year-old Fern is the person asking this question. She is told that her father is going to kill the weakest of a new litter of pigs. Shocked, Fern rushes to save the pig. Fern names the pig Wilbur and cares for him till he is sold to her uncle, Mr. Zuckerman. Wilbur grows into a fine pig on Zuckerman's farm. When he learns of the farmer's plan to slaughter him, Wilbur is distraught. That's when he meets Charlotte, a spider. Charlotte appoints herself Wilbur's second rescuer and gives serious thought to saving Wilbur. She hits upon the idea of weaving admiring words about Wilbur in her web. “Some pig” is her first contribution, followed by “Terrific” “Radiant” and “Humble”. The appearance of these words convinces everyone that Wilbur is an extraordinary pig. He is exhibited at the County Fair where he wins a medal. With this victory Wilbur can look forward to a long and peaceful life. Ironically, having saved Wilbur, Charlotte herself dies, leaving behind her eggs. Wilbur vows to take care of her eggs and watches over them till they hatch. Now Wilbur is never without a friend, for a couple of spiders always stay on in the barn and keep him company.

Charlotte's Web has won several awards, in addition to being named a Newbery Honor Book in 1953. What are the reasons for its enduring popularity? White's simple language and undramatic narrative focus on one of the most challenging topics to be addressed in a children's book — that of death. Animals on a farm are raised in order to be killed and eaten one day. And yet, the thirst for life runs in every animal's veins, and helps them understand Wilbur's horror at the news of his death. Charlotte, aware of her own approaching death, nevertheless stays true to Wilbur, and saves his life. The description of Charlotte's death is one of the saddest sections in the book, and stays with us long after we have finished reading. The birth of her babies, months after Charlotte's death, helps us understand that life goes on.

White uses simple language to celebrate the joy of life and his descriptions make the farm and the old barn in particular, come alive for the readers. Although we meet many human and animal characters in the novel, it is without doubt Charlotte who stays on in our minds.

For, as White tells us, “It is not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer. Charlotte was both.

About White

Elwyn Brooks White was born on July 11, 1899. Known as E. B. White, he was an American writer. He was a long-time contributor to The New Yorker magazine and a co-author of the widely-used English language style guide, The Elements of Style, which is commonly known as “Strunk & White”.

He also wrote books for children including Charlotte's Web and Stuart Little.Charlotte's Web was first published in 1952, with illustrations by Garth Williams.

In the late 1930s, White turned his hand to children's fiction on behalf of a niece, Janice Hart White. His first children's book, Stuart Little was published in 1945.

Both books received high acclaim and in 1970, jointly won the Laura Ingalls Wilder Medal, a major prize in the field of children's literature. In the same year, White published his third children's novel, The Trumpet of the Swan. In 1973, that book received the Sequoyah Award from Oklahoma and the William Allen White Award from Kansas, both of which were awarded by students voting for their favourite book of the year.

Inspiration

Charlotte A. Cavatica, the heroine of the book, was also born of observations in White's barn. “I had been watching a big, gray spider at work and was impressed by how clever she was at weaving,” he remembered. But what would happen if a clever spider could weave not only webs, but words? Charlotte's Web explores this possibility.

In 1939, he moved with his family to a farm in quiet North Brooklin, Maine. The Whites had sheep, chickens, and pigs, as well as rambling gardens.

Surrounded by mountains and sea, White lived on his farm until he died in 1985. He wrote his children's novels at an old typewriter in his boathouse.

In a letter to a young reader, White wrote:

“In real life, a spider doesn't spin words in her web . . . But real life is only one kind of life — there is also the life of the imagination. And although my stories are imaginary, I like to think that there is some truth in them, too — truth about the way people and animals feel and think and act.”

The movie

Charlotte's Web is a 2006 American live-action/computer-animated feature film, based on the book. It is directed by Gary Winick and produced by Paramount Pictures, Walden Media, The K Entertainment Company, and Nickelodeon Movies. The screenplay is by Susannah Grant and Karey Kirkpatrick.

It is the second film adaptation of White's book, preceded by a 1973 cel-animated version produced by Hanna-Barbera for Paramount Pictures.