I tore open the envelope -- `E. B. White!' I blurted
ONE of life's delightful blessings has been a deep and lasting friendship with E. B. White's ``Charlotte's Web.'' Never have I read a children's book when I felt so glad the story was written. What could be more appealing than a little farm pig, in serious trouble, befriended by a tender-hearted spider? Yet, for all my romance with the story, memory of first contact with it escapes me. I remember it was recommended but am hazy on whether it was by my college children's lit professor or a teacher the first year I taught. The name E. B., or Elwyn Brooks, White meant nothing to me. Although Garth Williams' illustrations are adorable, 184 pages of text had to be recommended before I'd read it.
But, once I had read it to my first class, I could never stop sharing this treasure with later students, who included second through sixth graders over the next 10 to 12 years. One year there was no time in the dictatorial curriculum for oral reading, so I practically begged the students to read the book on their own.
I'd been reared on farms in Michigan, and many passages brought sweet memories of my life on the land. I knew from experience the beauty and peace and fun I was reading about, and for the students' sake I liked the models of friendship, expressing sincere, gentle, and caring qualities.
It was thrilling to witness the children's joy in getting to know ``Charlotte's'' family in chapter after chapter. A genuine affection grew for Charlotte and Wilbur and the more than a dozen supporting human and barnyard characters. The effect of the story was manifest in different ways. One was apparent when someone would discover a spider in the classroom. Its presence was instant news, and protests of defense could be heard like buckshot. It was showered with concern for its safety and survival.
Back in the second year of my teaching I very much wanted to let the author know my feelings about his story, and I hoped to make this a joint venture with my class. I was a substitute teacher in Melbourne, state of Victoria, in Australia. I frequently moved from school to school subbing so I never had long enough to read the story to a class. Until one day when a fourth/fifth grade teacher in Abbotsford took a leave of absence and I was asked to fill the position with five-and-a-half months of school r emaining. Here was my opportunity. I began reading ``Charlotte's Web'' to the classes after lunch and finished about October. Then the students and I wrote letters of appreciation and mailed them to Mr. White in care of the publisher in New York.
Occasionally during the spring (autumn in America) the thoughts came: Will he get the letters? Will he write to us? Will we get a form letter only?
The last day of school, Dec. 16 (into summer now), I walked into the classroom with a long face. The students were standing at attention as usual. It was the custom in most Melbourne schools where I taught for them to rise when an adult entered the room. I said, as I remember, ``Boys and girls, this is a sad day for me. We haven't heard from E. B. White. I hoped we'd get a letter from him by now.''
About midmorning the school secretary came to the door and handed me a letter. I looked at the return -- North Brooklin, Maine. Who did I know there? I tore open the envelope and looked at the signature. ``E. B. White!'' I blurted. The announcement struck deep. Silently the children waited. The letter was typed on small stationery, but he had written his signature and there were no secretary's initials, and I was impressed to think he had typed the letter himself. I read them the date, Octo ber 30 -- and said maybe there's been a dock strike or the ship was slow.
Mr. White opened by thanking us for our letters and complimenting their handwriting, and for those two virtues I give my students the credit; so, with that in mind, here is the letter [please see reproduction].
The children were touched by Mr. White's personal message, yet I felt that Charlotte and Wilbur had left the deepest impression on their lives.
For the combined works of ``Stuart Little'' (1945), ``Charlotte's Web'' (1952), and ``Trumpet of the Swan'' (1970) E. B. White was given the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award. It is presented every five years by the American Library Association to an author ``for a substantial and lasting contribution to literature for children.''
``Charlotte's Web'' is lasting. Only two days ago a young friend rushed up and thanked me for telling her about it. She concluded, ``It's the best book in the whole world!''