NICK EICHER, HOST: Today is Tuesday, June 2nd. Thank you for starting your day with WORLD Radio! Good morning. I’m Nick Eicher.
MARY REICHARD, HOST: And I’m Mary Reichard. It’s the first Tuesday of the month, and that means it’s time for our Classic Book of the Month with reviewer, Emily Whitten.
It’s time now for our Classic Book of the Month with reviewer, Emily Whitten. Hi, Emily!
EMILY WHITTEN, REVIEWER: Hey, Mary!
REICHARD: You’re a voracious reader. What have you been reading lately?
WHITTEN: I just got around to the kids’ classic, Charlotte’s Web by Elwyn Brooks White, better known as E. B. White. I don’t know how I missed the book in elementary school. One reviewer who moved around a lot as a kid said she read the book in four different classes. So, I know a lot of people are already familiar with it. But if your kids missed it, or if you haven’t read White’s other classic kids’ books, Stuart Little and Trumpet of the Swan, this summer might be a good time to check him out.
REICHARD: I remember we talked before about that classic writing guide he wrote, The Elements of Style. E.B. White was a pretty prolific author, wasn’t he?
WHITTEN: That’s right! Yes, among other awards, in 1978 he won a Pulitzer Prize for his body of work, including numerous books and several decades worth of essays for The New Yorker. And because you mentioned The Elements of Style, I would say White definitely applied those principles here. His clear, crisp writing elevates Charlotte’s Web far above most kids’ books.
REICHARD: What else would you say makes Charlotte’s Web such a classic?
WHITTEN: One answer: loveable characters. It’s a farm tale about a runt of a piglet named Wilbur and his clever friend, Charlotte, who happens to be a spider. Charlotte eventually hatches a plan to keep Wilbur’s owners from turning him into bacon. Now, White didn’t care for organized religion, but his tale definitely echoes themes of self-sacrifice and compassion, themes Christians will recognize from the gospel. So, in other words, he gets a lot right, even if he didn’t mean to..
REICHARD: Shades of common grace. That’s good to hear.
WHITTEN: I thought we could listen to a clip of a 20-19 Audible.com version of the book. Meryl Streep, the award-winning actress, narrates here along with a cast of other talented actors. Keep in mind that Wilbur the piglet has been playfully boasting of his ability to spin a web just like his spider friend, Charlotte. In this clip, Charlotte indulges his enthusiasm:
CLIP: It must be a lot of fun to spin a web. How do I start?” “Take a deep breath,” said Charlotte, smiling. Wilbur breathed deeply. “Now climb to the highest place you can get to. Like this.” Charlotte raced up to the top of the doorway. Wilbur scrambled to the top of the manure pile. “Very good,” said Charlotte. “Now make an attachment with your spinnerets, hurl yourself into space, and let out a drag line as you go down.” Wilbur hesitated a moment, then jumped out into the air. He glanced hastily behind to see if a piece of rope was following him to check his fall. But nothing seemed to be happening in his rear. And then next thing he knew, he landed with a thump. Umph, he grunted. Charlotte laughed so hard her web began to sway.
Hopefully you can hear some of the humor and vivid storytelling there. I like to imagine a fatherly twinkle in White’s eye as he wrote that passage. The story goes that he began writing kids’ books in the 1930s to entertain his niece, Janice Hart White. And he ended up having one son, two stepsons, and three grandchildren before his death in 19-85. Unlike many writers today, he understood we can’t actually be anything we want to be. A pig can’t become a spider, for instance. But our different gifts allow us to complement each other.
REICHARD: That’s reminds me of Paul’s comments in 1 Corinthians, how we’re all part of Christ’s body and need each other.
REICHARD: As an animal lover, I really appreciate the attention White brings to the natural world. This book and Black Beauty, too.
WHITTEN: You know, author Michael Sims recently teased out White’s connection to the natural world in his book, The Story of Charlotte’s Web, and in this 20-13 THNKR video on YouTube titled A Children’s Classic or Great American Novel?:
CLIP: In 1947, E.B. White was tending a pig and the pig gets sick and the pig dies. He begins imagining a story where the pig does not die. And a few months later, he ends up looking up and there’s a huge spiderweb in the barn. And he watches as the spider carefully lays eggs and puts them in an egg sac. And I love this moment. E. B. White takes that little egg case and puts it in his blazer pocket. So, in his pocket is the inspiration for what will become the most popular children’s book in history.
I should note, the ending probably merits a discussion for Christian families. White seems to put his hope in continuing generations. He portrays one character as living on through children and grandchildren. But of course Christ offers the greater hope of resurrection. Our friends who die in Christ will be there to hug us and sing with us and eat breakfast with us in the New Creation. So, we have an even better ending to look forward to.
REICHARD: Hope and eternity. Now that’s an ending worth discussing! One question I have, as the mother of a formerly rambunctious little boy, who’s now grown up, do you have any suggestions for how to get reluctant readers to give it a try?
WHITTEN: Hmmm. Well, some people may be skeptical about this, but it can help to let a reluctant reader watch a movie version first. That way they don’t have to create all the images in their head. To my mind, it’s like giving them training wheels to get them going.
REICHARD: I’d think for some people, that method works well.
WHITTEN: One trick I learned from my father-in-law…try reading a few chapters of a gripping novel out loud. Then set the book down and walk away. Sometimes, a kid will be so compelled to find out what happened, she’ll pick up the book and finish it on her own.
You could check your local library for online Summer Reading prizes. Redeemed Reader.com is a Christian website that offers some Summer Reading resources. Personally, I like to reward kids while they read. Maybe include a special snack during reading time–a favorite piece of candy or popsicle. It helps make reading time itself the reward.
REICHARD: Those are really good tips. And for you parents wondering if you’ll ever have kids that read? Don’t give up. I tried about everything to get my kids to read. It didn’t work for years. But I can say now that they are in their 20s, they are book readers. So take heart out there!
WHITTEN: That’s a good word, Mary. Thanks for saying that. I want parents to feel encouraged, during this time especially.
REICHARD: I agree. Thanks for today’s book recommendation and that bit of advice, Emily.
WHITTEN: You’re very welcome, Mary. Happy reading!
REICHARD: For June, Emily recommended Charlotte’s Web by E. B. White. She also mentioned White’s other books, Stuart Little and The Trumpet of the Swan. For more classic book ideas, just search for Classic Book of the Month at worldandeverything.org.