Sunday, August 12, 2012

Questioning Charlotte’s Web

In Betsy Bird’s recent poll at A Fuse #8 Production, the top picks for picture book and middle grade fiction were not surprising: once again, Where the Wild Things Are and Charlotte’s Web took top honors. But what does that really mean?

Much as I love E.B. White's Charlotte’s Web, I have certain suspicions about its dominance. Consider the following:

w I once taught a fourth grade student, a girl who was a reluctant reader and very much interested in sports. She really liked Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, but thought Charlotte’s Web was too slow. Boring, in fact.

w The people voting for Charlotte’s Web and all the other books in the poll are grown-ups, many of them librarians, teachers, and writers.

w It’s traditional for third or fourth grade teachers to read Charlotte’s Web to their classes. I think the kids appreciate it, and well they should. But the book is basically imposed on them.

w My officemate said to me the other day, talking about Charlotte’s Web, “I remember I cried back in fourth grade when Charlotte died, but now? I’m all for squishing spiders.”

The book is brilliantly crafted and the characters are delightful. I guess what I’m questioning is its current dominance as a top pick in 2012—for better or for worse.

Now, we might argue that it’s the job of people like those aforementioned third or fourth grade teachers to read kids books that are brilliantly crafted, thus helping kids appreciate the good stuff. I can testify that, as a first grade teacher, I used to fight not to roll my eyes when the kids brought in their own books for me to read, usually badly written movie or TV tie-ins. (Why Disney can’t afford someone good to write those Winnie the Pooh knock-offs is beyond me!)

But. Still. Which of our classics would make the top of the list if the list were controlled by, I dunno, a committee made up of kids and teachers? Or something like that. And if we were to pick a book that both kids and teachers could agree on, what would it be? Or if we were to just ask for a top book written in the last 20 years? Maybe Holes? Or Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone? Perhaps The Lightning Thief? Of course, the Cybils are supposed to find that happy medium, but I guess I’d like to speculate a bit on my own here.

What do the kids themselves like? Take a look at the Children’s Choices this year, based only on books published in 2011. This joint effort of the International Reading Association and the Children’s Book Council is a list selected by 12,500 young readers. I was intrigued to see that three graphic novels scored high: Sidekicks by Dan Santat, Squish #1: Super Amoeba by Jennifer Holms and Matthew Holms, and Doug TenNapel’s Bad IslandLost and Found by Shaun Tan and Okay for Now by Gary D. Schmidt were also big hits.

Looking over the list of Newbery medal and honor books for the last 15 years, I picked out a sampling I think have more kid appeal than the others:

When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead (2010 winner)
The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman (2009 winner)
Savvy by Ingrid Law (2009 honor)
Princess Academy (2006 honor)
The Tale of Despereaux by Kate DiCamillo (2004 winner)
Hoot by Carl Hiaasen (2003 honor)
Joey Pigza Loses Control (2001 honor)
Holes by Louis Sachar (1999 winner)
Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine (1998 honor)

Of course the others on the Newbery list are good books, even great books, but by whose standards? Grown-ups. It’s an ongoing question, I know. I’m bringing it up again because I find myself wondering whether the tide of children’s books has permanently changed. Whether children’s tastes have changed, making many of the classics of the last century, as the publishing industry puts it these days, "too quiet."

I will, however, leave Where the Wild Things Are alone. It worked then, it works now, probably because it’s slyly subversive as well as magical and compelling. For that matter, perhaps that’s why Roald Dahl’s books still continue to charm even reluctant readers like my fourth grade student.

What do you think?


Charlotte said...

I, of course, had a hard time loving Charlotte's Web because the spider jokes got old very very fast.

I think Where the Mountain Meets the Moon (an honor book) has tons of kid appeal...I'm looking forward to its sequel lots.

Anonymous said...

I honestly never understood the appeal of Charlotte's Web. Even as a kid who was a voracious reader! If I wanted to read a book that featured a pig, I would read Thimble Summer.

I think that some older classics - the "quiet" books, can still captivate, but I do agree that it seems wise to take into account children's interests when it comes to choosing "best of" lists, not just what appeals to adults now, or what we have nostalgic memories of!

Jennifer said...

Kid appeal is so hard to define! I've looked at books (Moon over manifest *cough*) and thought "no way" but I had a ten year old girl practically beg me on her knees to make an exception to the "no library card, no check out" rule so she could take it home to read.

Classics are even more iffy. Kids often won't pick them up on their own, but they enjoy them if a parent or librarian recommends them. Right now, my library is experiencing a surge in the popularity of Encyclopedia Brown books, so much so that I ended up replacing them all so I'd have enough shiny copies to go around. Why? I had recommended them to a kid who liked the Doyle and Fossey mysteries, who recommended them to a friend, etc.

That being said, I don't think I've ever had a kid voluntarily read E.B. White and I've had LOTS of kids complain about having to read him. On the other hand, I loved White as a kid (and I'm not THAT old)

I think every book has its reader - and its day. Lots of the Newberys won't stand the test of time, but a few will. I like to think more of the Cybils will bob up in popularity as kids and parents rediscover them over the years though.

Amy said...

I'm reading Charlotte's Web to my four-year-old boy right now, and he is actually loving it (but then, he's more than a little obsessed with spiders right now, so I think that helps).

I thought almost the exact same thing though when I saw the Top 100 results...who is giving these books the top spots? (Although I think children were allowed to vote in the polls?) I'm probably alone in saying this, but it was actually Where the Wild Things Are that I was disappointed with since I am not a Maurice Sendak fan. But that's why "Best of..." competitions are tricky...everyone has their own opinions. :-)

Brandy said...

I read Charlotte's Web to Bit when she was 3, nearly 4. She liked it a lot better then than she did having to read it on her own last year as a 2nd grader. I don't think she will pick it up again on her own.

Kid appeal is a tricky thing. I have found that Holes is always a winner. I read it with 4 classes of 5th graders and no one ever complained. I'm reading it with my 4-6 class now and again, they are so excited by it. Our first day was today and they were bouncing in their seats ready to talk about those first 7 chapters.

I think Dead End in Norvelt is an interesting choice. I haven't tried it out on a kid yet but I was bored by it. :) (Same with Moon Over Manifest, which someone mentioned above.)

I agree with Charlotte that Where the Mountain Meets the Moon is a good one.

KateCoombs said...

Jennifer--Good point! And there are going to be kids who love the classics and more traditional Newbery winners. I don't want to go as far as those TV tie-ins, but I do like finding a book like Holes, which is both well written AND has kid appeal. We need it all, yes, but that kind of book is a real treasure. Well, Roald Dahl really did come closest to nailing it for all time, I would have to say.

Amy--I guess any poll is ultimately subjective, come to think about it.

Brandy--That's funny; I was a little iffy about including Dead End in Norvelt on the list. Joey P was an easier call. And my writer friend and I were recently joking about the typical Newbery winner, e.g., Moon Over Manifest: a young girl is dumped off in a small Southern town and must come to grips with the changes in her life while making new friends with the quirky locals...

Lark @ The Bookwyrm's Hoard said...

I did love Charlotte's Web as a child, and read it several times. Perhaps one reason that you sense it's less popular with kids now is BECAUSE it is so often either read to them in school or assigned? In other words, "I gotta read this book" just doesn't generate the same enthusiasm as "Wow, I found this really great book!"

You may well be on to something when you suggest that the classics are "too quiet" for today's children, reared on fast-paced and/or snarky television shows. OTOH, a lot of the really good stuff will survive. My daughter (now in college) grew up as the world's biggest Harry Potter fan; she also devoured the Percy Jackson series, Tamora Pierce, Susan Cooper, and a number of other fantasy-adventure books. But she loved some of the older, slower-paced books as well, whether I read them to her or she read them herself: Anne of Green Gables, the Green Knowe books of L. M. Boston, Elizabeth Goudge's "The Little White Horse" and "Linnets and Valerians," Elizabeth Marie Pope's "The Perilous Gard." And she adored Robin McKinley's "Spindle's End," which is definitely not fast-paced (just brilliant!)

KateCoombs said...

Lark--It's kind of chicken or egg, isn't it? I guess I might categorize your daughter as what I call a serious reader, in which case I think they're more likely to love the quieter books and classics. That's the kind of reader I was, and the kind many of those who comment here are (and were). For the kids who dislike quieter books, I'm not necessarily thinking of reluctant readers (despite my example), but of mid-range readers, neither reluctant nor voracious. Anyway, thanks for your thoughts on this!

Anonymous said...

It's funny. I have this reaction when I see Where the Wild Things Are at the top of the picture book list...again. As an adult, I love the artwork in Where the Wild Things Are and appreciate the story. However, I never enjoyed the book as a kid. It seems like others should be contenders.

Charlotte's Web, on the other hand, my kids and I absolutely love. Charlotte's Web was the first chapter book my son read, and he read it about 10 times before moving onto other chapter books. Charlotte's Web is now my 5-year-old daughter's favorite book. My son liked the magic in the book. My daughter is a bit like Fern; she loves animals and being outside. Both kids love reading about the state fair. I am surprised that EB White's descriptions of summer days passing hold my kids' attention, but they absolutely do.

KateCoombs said...

DCB--There's hope for us yet! I'm glad to hear how much your kids like Charlotte's Web. As for Where the Wild Things Are, my mom's not a fan, either. :)

LinWash said...

I still love Charlotte's Web. But I agree that sometimes the Newbery choices are a bit removed from what the average kid might read. I think of them as the Oscars. How many Oscar-winning movies are the "popular" choice?
None of the kids that I know have cracked open Dead End in Norvelt. But they loved Savvy and Holes. None read Moon over Manifest, but I loved it. (I wrote one of my master's theses on that book.)

KateCoombs said...

That's it, I'm taking off Dead End in Norvelt! But you do see what I mean... How cool that you wrote your master's thesis on Moon over Manifest! :)

Sondy said...

I didn't vote for Charlotte's Web, but had no argument with it as a practically perfect children's novel. My 3rd grade teacher read it to our class and I loved it.

However, I just listened to the audio of E. B. White reading it, and I was surprised by how many imperfections I spotted! My memories of the book were sorely tainted by the Hanna Barbara animated feature my son listened to over and over. It left out lots of stuff in the book that's quite extraneous to the basic plot.

The book is a paean to the barn. The parts about Fern and Avery swinging on a rope in the barn, and many others, are totally apart from the story, but are all about the barn. And the relationship between Fern and Wilbur just drops completely off. Doesn't it seem strange that Fern never ever talks to anyone about the words in the web? She does say, in the last chapter, Look at Charlotte's Web, but she's telling her Mom all about the stories Charlotte tells and she doesn't mention that? And wouldn't FERN have had some ideas about keeping Wilbur from being killed?

All that aside, I still love the book. And it IS a beautiful paean to the barn.

And it's very problematic putting newer books on an "all-time top children's books" list. I purposely left off newer books. I guess I feel like it needs a little time to have proper perspective on them. So I tended toward books I read as a child and have since read to children many times. I didn't list any book I hadn't read more than once.

Now, I wouldn't be the least bit surprised if some current books come up in a poll done ten years from now. I might vote for some of them. But in a list like that, I just don't feel like we have perspective on the enduring value of a book like The One and Only Ivan. When You Reach Me? Well, maybe.... Harry Potter? Yes, I think it's been long enough. (But then, I've read it multiple times.)

Z-Kids said...

Charlotte's Web was the first chapter book I ever tried to read with my kid. We quit halfway through. He just wasn't into it. So we turned instead to James and the Giant Peach (success!), quickly followed by Treasure Island, Narnia, Winnie the Pooh... and 8 years later the kids and I are still reading together. Glad we didn't give up after the shaky start!