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Some Book! 'Charlotte's Web' Turns 60

Sixty years ago, the book Charlotte's Web first appeared in print. This children's classic is often seen as a story of a spider and a pig. But when E.B. White recorded a narration of the book, he said something different: "This is a story of the barn. I wrote it for children, and to amuse myself."

And the way he describes it, Homer Zuckerman's barn is a character with its own, complex personality — smelling of hay and manure, of grain and axle grease and new boots and fish heads for the barn cats, but mostly hay, which was a familiar smell to White. He grew up in a New York City suburb at a time when people rode horses and carriages, and his parents had a stable.

"His favorite thing was to care for animals," says author Michael Sims. "Chickens, ducks, mice, dogs of course." Sims is the author of The Story of Charlotte's Web: E.B. White's Eccentric Life in Nature and the Birth of an American Classic.

"In 1933, [White] and his wife, Katharine Angell, moved to Maine, bought a farm and settled into a whole different kind of life that brought back all of the favorite joys of childhood," Sims says.

And it was White's experiences in his own barn that led him to the story of Charlotte and her web. "One of the pigs he was raising died," Sims says, "and while he was carrying the pails of slops every day to the replacement pig in the barn, he noticed there was a spider attending its web every day, expanding the web, rebuilding what had happened the night before, and then one day he saw that it had spun an egg case."

When White had to go back to New York City, he cut down the spider's egg case and took it with him. Eventually the baby spiders hatched, and after that, White finished spinning his now-famous tale. And in 1970, he sat down in a studio to record the narration.

"He, of course, as anyone does doing an audio book, had to do several takes for various things, just to get it right," Sims says. "But every time, he broke down when he got to Charlotte's death. And he would do it, and it would mess up. ... He took 17 takes to get through Charlotte's death without his voice cracking or beginning to cry."

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

OK. This is an anniversary I can get into, Renee. Sixty years ago today, "Charlotte's Web" first appeared in print. One of the biggest selling and best loved children's books of all time.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And my favorite childhood book, actually, so I can too. Most readers would describe it as the classic tale of an unlikely friendship between a spider and a pig and how by weaving words above his pen, the spider transforms the pig's life.

INSKEEP: But when E.B. White recorded his own narration of this book in 1970, he said this...

E.B. WHITE: This is a story of the barn. I wrote it for children and to amuse myself.

INSKEEP: Story of the barn. And Homer Zuckerman's big old barn is where everything unfolds. It's where Wilbur the pig finds a home, where he meets Charlotte the spider.

WHITE: It smelled of hay and it smelled of manure. It smelled of the perspiration of tired and the wonderful sweet breath of patient cows. It often had a sort of peaceful smell, as though nothing bad could happen ever again in the world.

MONTAGNE: E.B. White would've been familiar with those smells. He grew up in a New York City suburb at a time when people rode horses and carriages. His parents had a stable.

MICHAEL SIMS: And his favorite thing was to care for animals - chickens, ducks, mice.

INSKEEP: That's Michael Sims, who wrote a book called "The Story of Charlotte's Web."

SIMS: And then in 1933, he and his wife, Katharine Angell, moved to Maine, bought a farm, and settled into a whole different kind of life that brought back all of the favorite joys of childhood.

WHITE: Mr. Zuckerman had the best swing in the county. It was a single long piece of heavy rope tied to the beam over the north doorway. The bottom end of the rope was a fat knot to sit on. It was arranged so that you could...

ELEANOR HOLT: It was arranged so that you could swing without being pushed. You climbed a ladder to the hayloft, then holding the rope you stood at the edge and looked down. And you were scared and dizzy. Then you straddled the knot so that it acted as a seat. And you got up all your nerve, took a deep breath and jumped.

MONTAGNE: E.B. White started reading that passage. I think I never heard his voice before. And we also heard a 10-year-old from Washington, D.C. reading there.

And as an adult in his own barn, E.B. White encountered the animals and experiences that would lead him to "Charlotte's Web."

SIMS: One of the pigs he was raising died. And while he was carrying the pails of slops every day to the replacement pig in the barn, he noticed that there was a spider attending its web every day, expanding the web, rebuilding what had happened the night before. And then one day he saw that it had spun an egg case. And so he stopped to examine it.

INSKEEP: OK. Spoiler alert here. We're about to give away the ending. So if you don't want to hear it, just take a second, turn down the radio for a few seconds, come back to us in a minute.

MONTAGNE: To many readers, Charlotte's death at the end of the book is heartbreaking, but perhaps no one was more heartbroken than the author himself.

SIMS: When E.B. White was doing the narration, he, of course, as anyone does when doing an audio book, had to do several takes for various things, just to get it right. But every time he broke down when he got to Charlotte's death. And he would do it and it would mess up and they would say, OK, let's take a break and start over. And he did that again until - he took 17 takes to get through Charlotte's death without his voice cracking or beginning to cry.

WHITE: The fairgrounds were soon deserted. The sheds and buildings were empty and forlorn. The infield was littered with bottles and trash. Nobody of the hundreds of people that had visited the fair knew that a gray spider had played the most important part of all. No one was with her when she died.

MONTAGNE: That was E.B. White reading from his classic children's tale, "Charlotte's Web," published 60 years ago today. And our young reader in this story was Eleanor Holt of Washington, D.C.

This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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