What an interesting exercise to read Charlotte’s Web again, which I think I probably haven’t done since fourth grade… even though I feel I “know” it from the movies and numerous cultural references. I found it distinguished in characterization and in language…though somewhat flawed in narrative.
White’s characters are instantly compelling and complex—even side characters. On the very first page, Fern and Mr. and Mrs. Arable are quickly defined. And how quickly the Goose becomes a fixture! Here’s her entrance on page 17:
“You don’t have to stay in that dirty-little dirty-little dirty-little yard,” said the goose, who talked rather fast. “One of the boards is loose. Push on it, push-push-push on it, and come on out!”
‘What?” said Wilbur. “Say it slower!”
“At-at-at-, at the risk of repeating myself,” said the goose, “I suggest that you come on out. It’s wonderful out here.”
There is a slight oddness in the shifts of point-of-view through the first chapters. The reader first connects with Fern…who pretty quickly recedes as a character. That seems to be ok, as Wilbur is such a quickly engaging protagonist. But then Fern seems to become more important to the narrator again towards the end, when she goes to the fair. Chapter 19 ends: “As they passed the Ferris wheel, Fern gazed up at it and wished she were in the topmost car with Henry Fussy.” What does this have to do with Wilbur and Charlotte? By this point White has disengaged his readers from Fern’s point-of-view except when it refers solely to the barn animals, and the re-introduction of Fern as a coming-of-age parallel to Wilbur’s doesn’t seem necessary, and is ungainly.
Here’s the thing though: White’s use of language and his characters are so fresh and outstandingly on-target that these narrative problems don’t keep the story from being “distinguished.” I can absolutely understand however, how a committee might find another book “more” distinguished.
I found Secret of the Andes, as others have, nearly unbearable for both the flowery voice and the characterization of Cusi, neither of which have aged well. However, reading it all the way through convinced me that these are probably exactly the qualities that “distinguished” it to the committee. That, and some research.
This is from Ann Nolan Clark’s acceptance speech, which you can find in the Horn Book Magazine’s Newbery Medal Books: 1922-1955.:
“I have worked with Spanish children from New Mexico to Central and South America, with Indian children from Canada to Peru. I have worked with them because I like them. I write about them because their stories need to be told. All children need understanding, but children of segregated racial groups need even more. All children need someone to make a bridge from their world to the world of the adults who surround them.”
And this is from Anne Carroll Moore column “The Three Owls’ Notebook” in the June 1952 issue of The Horn Book Magazine:
“Secret of the Andes touches me deeply in my search for beauty to share with boys and girls who are far more responsive to the call of poetry and prose than is commonly admitted. The Inca shepherd boy Cusi and the wise old guardian of the herd of llamas are living characters. I saw very clearly ‘Hidden Valley,” heard the songs of the minstrel who came to sing them there, heard even the ‘llama-humming,’ caught the first glimpse of people who live in a world below and followed the long, steep, downward trail with Cusi and his pet black llama, Misti, in his search for his heart’s desire—‘to find a family.’
“Legend springs to life in a new form and because the book is at once true and full of mystery it casts a spell on a reader who will always feel the call of the mountains in the heart of the city she loves to live in.”
This is the Anne Carroll Moore, of course, who dominated many critical circles and had a testy relationship with E.B. White. This is from her infamous “The Three Owls’ Notebook” column on Charlotte’s Web:
“From picture books I step into real trouble and I may as well confess that I find E. B. White’s Charlotte’s Web, illustrated by Garth Williams (Harper $2.50), hard to take from so masterly a hand. There is no one whose writing I more deeply regard in the adult field. Stuart Little disappointed me but thousands of people liked it. Stuart Little was a dream story. Charlotte’s Web is born of real life in the wonderful countryside of my own childhood. I grew up on a large farm in Maine. There are chapters of great beauty and rare understanding of the life of farm animals in Charlotte’s Web. They moved me very deeply as I read them without Garth Williams’ fine pictorial interpretation, but as a children’s book it never came clear from the preoccupation of an adult who had not spent a childhood on a farm. The story got off to a fine start. Fern was as living a girl as one could wish when she rescued the runt pig from her father’s ax, but no such country child would have spent day after day beside the manure pile to which the pig was consigned and repeated afterward to as dumb a mother as a parent’s page ever invoked what the animals told her in their language. Fern, the real center of the book, is never developed. The animals never talk. They speculate. As to Charlotte, her magic and mystery require a different technique to create that lasting interest in spiders which controls childish impulse to do away with them.”
Moore’s attachment to Fern as the most important character may be helped by White’s awkward narrative and shifts in point of view. But when I look at her comments alongside her comments on Clark’s book, and Clark’s own acceptance speech, it also tells me something about the “tastes” of the time that may have influenced the committee’s decision. For historical context, consider that IBBY was founded in 1953, after years-long efforts of Jella Lepman in the wake of World War II. UNESCO was founded in 1945. Might this have been a time in which the “interpretation of the theme or concept” in Secret of the Andes was considered far more distinguished that in Charlotte’s Web?
There is an interesting exchange in the comments on the previous post about whether the Newbery Committee should–or can–consider "lastingness" (my awkwardly coined term). Wendy suggests:
"One of my theories about why there are SO many historical fiction titles among the Newbery winners is that the committees think those books stand a better chance of not seeming dated in the future–and for the most part, they’re probably right."
Well, "lastingness" is explicitly NOT in the criteria … and committees are often coached on the fact that we really can’t predict how well a book will age. It’s equally true that this doesn’t keep us from trying, as Leslie points out in her comments, and I think that every committee member hopes that "their" book will be a "classic" and a "favorite." But, really–ask yourself–how would you even begin to measure for this? Could you have predicted, twenty years ago, that smoking would be considered taboo in most US cities? Or that we’d be entering an economic downturn comparable to the Great Depression? Could the 1953 committee have predicted that Charlotte’s Web would have been animated in 1972, which I bet, a dollar to a doughnut, is a major fact in the breadth of its popularity among today’s adults?
"I think popularity over time might have a great deal to do with literary merit. While some books that have that merit don’t last, I can’t think of any books that "stand the test of time" without it. …. So, I don’t think that its obscurity should count against SotA, but do think Charlotte should get bonus points for aging so well."
To me, this brings it back to why "popularity" is not a criteria of the award. Popularity creates its own "winners," and needs no award committee to promote it. The Newbery award is for something else. Charlotte’s Web and Secret of the Andes both have it: literary merit. And while the distinguished literary qualities of Clark’s book may have ultimately doomed it over time, White’s had a little something else…something that, frankly, we still rarely find in children’s books, not even once a year.