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Everything is illuminated

December 10, 2006|David L. Ulin

THE summer my son Noah was 5, he went on a "Charlotte's Web" kick. Or no, not kick: That doesn't quite capture the binge-like insistence of it, the way E.B. White's 1952 children's classic became the centerpiece of his life. For months, we read it to him every night, chapter by chapter, beginning again each time we reached the end. By the time September arrived and Noah's attention had led on other entertainments, we had read "Charlotte's Web" perhaps 10 times, and I (who had never loved the book as a child) had come to appreciate just what a remarkable achievement it was.

As any parent knows, the trick of reading to kids is to keep your boredom at bay. Of the thousands of children's titles published each year, few remain compelling after the first or second go-round. Yet "Charlotte's Web" is that rare exception, a book that not only held me but drew me in more deeply with each visit to Homer Zuckerman's barn. It is a story with everything -- life, death, love, loss and an almost aching sense of yearning, tempered by a belief in cosmic justice. So unsentimental is White's vision, so heartbreaking his wisdom, that the publisher, Harper & Brothers, urged him to soften the ending, which they felt would disturb the book's young readers. He didn't, of course, and half a century later "Charlotte's Web" has sold 45 million copies, which, if nothing else, offers a convincing refutation of the notion that we should protect our children from the complexities of the world.

White died in 1985 at age 86, so it's impossible to know what he would have thought about the big-budget live action film of "Charlotte's Web" that comes out this week. (He was approached about the screen rights in the early 1950s, and signed off on an animated version that appeared in 1973.) He might, however, have taken issue with the 18-plus tie-ins and adaptations that have been released in conjunction with the current movie, a veritable storm of publishing that includes deluxe editions, activity books, sticker sets, picture books and "I Can Read" early readers.

Such a deluge does precisely what White resisted half a century ago -- diluting his story's toughness and clarity in favor of something safe and bland. Even the new hardcover of "Charlotte's Web" (Harper Entertainment: 184 pp., $16.99) -- "The Original Novel by E.B. White," it trumpets -- replaces Garth Williams' iconic cover illustration with a nearly identical photo of the film's star, Dakota Fanning, clutching a newborn pig. It's almost enough to make the most devoted reader cynical, were it not for the enduring power of the book.

What makes "Charlotte's Web" resonate? The answer has to do with the simplicity of the story. In "Letters of E.B. White" (HarperCollins: 714 pp., $35), first published in 1976 and newly reissued in a revised and expanded edition, the author puts it this way: "As to your notion of an allegory, there is none. 'Charlotte's Web' is a tale of the animals in my barn, not of the people in my life. When you read it, just relax. Any attempt to find allegorical meanings is bound to end disastrously, for no meanings are in there. I ought to know."

White's being coy here, making a joke at his own expense, but in essence he's telling the truth. The beauty of "Charlotte's Web," after all, is that it can be understood by anyone, at whatever stage of life. The world it portrays is recognizable, marked by ebb and flow, the inevitable movement of the seasons, the enthusiasms of children and the doubts of adults. When Fern, the 8-year-old girl at the heart of the story, tells her mother that she talks to the animals, the woman visits the local doctor. Eventually the conversation turns to the words that have appeared in the spider Charlotte's web. "I don't understand it," the mother laments, "and I don't like what I can't understand." The doctor's response is firm but tender, a reflection of the gentle air of wonder that permeates the book. "None of us do," he tells her. "I'm a doctor. Doctors are supposed to understand everything. But I don't understand everything, and I don't intend to let it worry me."

Here, White subtly undermines our assumptions, asking us to reconsider what we think we know. This allows "Charlotte's Web" to transcend children's writing and become a piece of literature on its own terms. Read five pages and you know you're in the hands of a master, one who understands not only the power of stories but how they operate.

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