(This essay was written by me and Sr. Madonna Janet Kuhlman, FSP, one of our nuns who loves kidlit!)
1952 was a very good year for children’s literature.
In addition to The Borrowers (Mary Norton), The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (C. S. Lewis), Secret of the Andes (Ann Nolan Clark; a book went on to receive the 1953 Newbery Medal), emerged E. B. White’s barnyard fantasy yarn, Charlotte’s Web, the best-selling children’s paperback of all time according to Publisher’s Weekly in 2002.
In 1973 Hanna-Barbera released an animated film version of Charlotte’s Web that quickly became a classic, and Paramount Pictures with Walden Media is now releasing a “live-action” adaptation that is faithful to the book and delighted and inspired children and adults alike.
In this new live-action adaptation of Charlotte’s Web, Wilbur (voice of Dominic Scott Kay) is the runt of a litter of pigs and Fern (Dakota Fanning) saves him by promising her father (Kevin Anderson), and the little pig, that she will take care of him. When Wilbur gets to be too big for the house Fern takes him across the road to live in her uncle’s barn. The other animals see Wilbur as just another ordinary pig, with a pig’s ordinary destiny: Christmas dinner. But the spider Charlotte (voice of Julia Roberts), which lives just inside the barn door, sees that Wilbur is special, because he is who he is. To show her esteem for her new friend, she spins words in her web that describe how she sees Wilbur: “some pig!” “terrific”, “radiant”, and “humble.” And Wilbur’s respect for Charlotte helps the other animals to see her as a beautiful creation, rather than a creature to be feared.
Charlotte gives her life for her offspring and for Wilbur, to save him forever from becoming Christmas dinner. The story teaches all of us, through its superior and entertaining automatronic characters, about dignity, friendship, what’s in a name, keeping our promises, and seeing and appreciating the miracle of ordinary life.
The most transcendent part of the film for me is when Mrs. Arable (Essie Davis) goes to visit the family doctor (Beau Bridges) because she is concerned with Fern’s obsession with Wilbur, the words in the web, etc. The doctor, even more than the clergyman in the film, testifies to the miracles that are all around us if we but look, and take the time to see them, a marriage, if you will, between science and faith.
There are all kinds of resources for educators and religious educators to download on the Walden website: http://www.charlotteswebresources.com
There is a wonderful section on Charlotte’s Web in the book Imagining Faith with Kids: Unearthing Seeds of the Gospel in Children’s Stories from Peter Rabbit to Harry Potter by Mary Margaret Keaton (Pauline Books & Media, 2005). The author writes about saints associated with animals: St. Francis of Assisi, St. Clare of Assisi, Blessed Jordan of Saxony, St. Martin de Porres (who set up a pet hospital in Lima, Peru). St. Roch, and Blessed Julian of Norwich who “befriended a cat that she cuddled and prayed with daily.”
About Charlotte’s Web Keaton writes:
The story “… carries a wonderful theme of respect for life. From the beginning, lives are defended. When Wilbur is to be slaughtered, Fern rushes to his rescue, calling his slaughter a terrible injustice (Chapter 1). Her father tells her that a weakling is in trouble, but Fern valiantly pleads for the runt’s life. Consider beginning a conversation this way: ‘Fern was brave to protect Wilbur, wasn’t she?’ or ‘It’s a good thing Wilbur had Fern looking out for hum, wasn’t it?’ Or you might create opportunities to talk about social justice: ‘Wow, Fern really stands up for what she believes in! That takes a lot of courage…’ This could lead to examples of other courageous acts in real life or other stories.”
Imagining Faith with Kids: Unearthing Seeds of the Gospel in Children’s Storiesfrom Peter Rabbit to Harry Potter is available from www.pauline.org or from the Pauline Book & Media Center, 3908 Sepulveda Blvd., Culver City, CA 90230 (or the Pauline Book & Media Center nearest you.)