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At 60, ‘Charlotte’s Web’ still has much to teach

“It is not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer. Charlotte was both.”

Innumerable young (and not-so-young) readers will instantly recognize that testimonial as the closing line of E.B. White’s beloved “Charlotte’s Web,” which was published 60 years ago last week and went on to become one of the bestselling children’s books of all time.

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Charlotte, of course, is a spider. And the tribute to her loyalty and her gifts as a writer comes from Wilbur, the young pig she befriends and then saves from being butchered through the power of a few well-chosen words — “SOME PIG” — woven into a web above the pigpen. (Later come “TERRIFIC,” “RADIANT,” and “HUMBLE.”)

Well-chosen words were E.B. White’s stock in trade. He was a longtime contributor to The New Yorker and co-author of “The Elements of Style,” the handbook known to generations of English composition students as “Strunk and White.” When “Charlotte’s Web” was published in 1952, Eudora Welty extolled it in the New York Times. “As a piece of work it is just about perfect, and just about magical in the way it is done.” Yet even Welty could hardly have imagined that “Charlotte’s Web” would have such enduring power, or still be captivating new readers well into the 21st century.

It may seem a curious thing to say about a book full of talking barn animals, but “Charlotte’s Web” is intensely realistic. White does not talk down to his readers, nor does he spare them from the facts of life on earth — above all that it is temporary and frequently pitiless, but that it can be ennobled through friendship, love, and sacrifice. The cycle of mortality runs through “Charlotte’s Web,” from its disquieting opening words (“Where’s Papa going with that ax?”) to the heroic spider’s lonely death 21 chapters later — and the hatching, the following spring, of the 514 eggs she laid and carefully protected before dying.

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