Reading Charlotte’s Web

Yesterday was not only the anniversary of my birth, but also the anniversary of the death of one of America’s most revered writers for children, E. B. White. And tomorrow, as I’ve done since 1990, I will be using Charlotte’s Web to introduce my 4th graders to a completely new way of reading.

This new way of reading for my students is actually a very old way of reading. It is close reading, the scholarly-sitting-around-the seminar-table-with-pencil-in-hand-to-make-notes-in-the-book’s-margins sort of reading. It is a way of reading that is exciting, revelatory, and wonderful when done with a book as moving, exquisitely written, and unique as Charlotte’s Web.

The children have brand new paperback copies of the book, all ready to mark-up, to make into their very own personal copies of Charlotte’s Web. My copy is not nearly as pretty. For it is a copy that was already beat-up when I grabbed it off a shelf in my classroom to take to Princeton University where I was to read it as part of a NEH summer seminar led by U. C.Knopflmacher.

I was ecstatic to be going; the reading list was full of beloved authors of mine like Sendak, Carroll, and Nesbit. The only one I was dubious about was White. Charlotte’s Web? That soppy book? No way was I spending a cent on a new copy.

But then there we were at that seminar table in the basement of the Firestone Library. Uli had me by the end of that remarkable first sentence, “Where’s Papa going with that axe?”, and I’ve never looked back. When I returned to school that fall, I decided to see how kids would react to such an experience. They loved it and I’ve been doing it every year since. And what do I think of Charlotte’s Web now? Only that it is the great American children’s novel.

So tomorrow my students will be (hopefully) all eager and excited to get going on this. My only worry is that I’m doing it a bit differently this year. One of my colleagues a few years ago had the brilliant idea of making enlarged copies of each page of the first chapter so the kids could see easily exactly what we were doing and do it too. (We model the first chapter for them and then they each do one on their own.) Last year I watched one colleague doing it on a Smartboard with great success so tomorrow I’m trying it on one too.

I’ll let you know how it goes. Maybe I’ll even figure out how to put a page or two up here for you all to see. (This blogging IS remarkably time absorbing!)



Filed under Reading, Teaching

17 responses to “Reading Charlotte’s Web

  1. How lucky you are to have had a class with Uli! He came over for the IBBY/NCRCL conference a few years ago, and was an absolute pleasure – as a human being and as a lecturer. I can imagine how having a class with him would be a firing-up experience.

    Time absorbing indeed! But fun too…


  2. Hi Monica,
    Your site has a great name and a great look. I envy you your fourth grade class. When I was a full time teacher they were my favourite students. There’s an argument to be made that we peak at the age of nine!
    All the best with your blog. I’ll check back regularly.


  3. Happy birthday! I hope it is SOME birthday.

    The evolution of the chalkboard/whiteboard continues.


  4. Oh to be a fourth grader about to embark on such an exquisite journey!

    “Some Teacher”



  5. I love Charlotte’s Web. That’s why I hate E.B. White.

    That’s a good thing, though. I always hate authors who’ve written books I wish I wrote myself.



  6. My nine-year-old daughter and I would definitely agree with your description of Charlotte as “the great American children’s novel”. It’s the book my daughter turns to when she needs comfort and comforting, as I’ve done, too, too many times to count in the past 30-some years.

    And when she cleans her room, she puts on the audio CD of Andy White reading the story to her…


  7. Happy Birthday! I also share the Oct 1 date!

    Hope your class enjoys Charlotte’s Web – a novel fondly remembered from childhood!


  8. Happy Birthday! I can’t wait to hear how the class went. What fun! My first experience like this as a student was in graduate school. Your students are lucky ducks.


  9. Phillis

    Yes, agree 100%. Charlotte’s Web is a perfect book. And what about the less perfect Stuart Little, which for some strange reason is even higher on my list? I haven’t quite figured out why yet. Maybe the fourth graders can…?


  10. Linnea Hendrickson

    Congratulations, Monica! We are going to do a one book/one school using Charlotte’s Web this fall – not yet sure of the details, but I’ll be returning here to see what you are doing. I just reread the book again – how many times before you have it memorized?


  11. Laura, Uli is one of the most generous academics I’ve ever met (and I’ve met many being the child of one!). I think he either is about to or just has retired, but will be going strong, I know.

    Phillis, before the NEH I too thought Stuart Little was the better book. Now I’m not sure. I actually admire all three of his children’s books (Trumpet of the Swan being the final one) very much. Each is so different; it is hard to quantify them. One difficult with Stuart Little for my students over the years is the ending. They want closure and often write a more satisfying coda for themselves.

    Linnea, I do sometimes wonder if I’ve got it memorized. That first chapter in particular! If not word perfect, I’d probably be able to at least write a pretty detailed synopsis! (Great to hear from you; hope all is okay.)


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  13. Rebecca

    I love your blog, and have read all the way down to the bottom. The one question I must ask you is this: How can you read Charlotte’s Web aloud without crying? I have never managed to. I have had high hopes, always broken when my voice catches on the last line.


  14. Rebecca,

    I don’t read it aloud. However, I always tear up when playing for the children E. B. White’s reading of that last chapter.


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