the spiral of children’s literature

4 July 2008
Charlotte's Web

I didn’t read Charlotte’s Web as a kid, sadly. Re-reading such books in adulthood is like finding the butter-yellow stuffed elephant you cuddled and carried on car rides. A new buttery elephant encountered first as an adult is likewise endearing and cozy, but it doesn’t smell of warm sleep and grandparents.

I read countless other classic children’s books, though, and they live in me still. I can feel a glass elevator shaking just before it bursts out of the ceiling. I can see a secret island below from a circle of boats lifted high in the air by balloon. I can feel the edge of a windowsill as I climb out into the night to join a great V of geese in flight. (I didn’t notice until now that my most vivid images are from moments of leaving the ground.)

aThe Twenty-One Balloons The Fledgling

I’m reading Charlotte’s Web now to my daughter. We have three versions going. The first is the unabridged audio, so really it’s E.B. White reading his story to both of us. As he reads, Meg is relying on her own mental images to vivify the characters and take her to the Arables’ farm, and she’s hearing a story that is longer than any she’d have the patience for a parent to read to her.

Some Pig

My former-children’s-librarian friend tells me that three-year-olds still need pictures to truly understand what’s going on in a story, though. When I read to her, it’s clear that Meg wants her books to have pictures. So when I saw Some Pig at a bookstore after we were already well into the audio version, I brought it home to share with her. It is a picture book of the second chapter of Charlotte’s Web.

Charlotte's Web

I also have an annotated edition, which I’ve flipped through and plan to explore. I referred to it yesterday after rereading in Some Pig that Wilbur “looked cute when his eyes were closed” and feeling bothered once again that perhaps this wasn’t the original text — maybe an editor added a bit here or shaved a bit there for a younger audience — since I thought the word “cute” pointed to a pen other than White’s. Turning to the annotated page, I saw that White did call Wilbur “cute,” and Peter Neumeyer told me that he knows “of no other instance in White’s voluminous writings in which he uses this word,” so I felt both newly informed and instinctively clever.


The annotated edition reproduces the original Garth Williams drawings, which I like better than the picture book illustrations. I think I’m unduly distracted by visual details in Some Pig. The illustrator shows pastures across the road from the Arable farm enclosed by hedgerows, a landscape which strikes me as more English than American. Nevertheless, I’m pleased by the practice of transforming portions of classic children’s novels into picture books. I introduced Meg to my favorite marmalade-eating bear through a similar volume.

Raising Lifelong Learners

In Raising Lifelong Learners, Lucy Calkins describes this as a spiral: introducing concepts and then revisiting them in greater depth at later ages. I think of the picture-book version of a classic children’s novel as an example of starting a spiral, and I wish there were more points along it.

There is a great distance between picture books and novels, and as far as I can tell, most of the books that lie between are chapter books. Someday Meg will enjoy reading Frog and Toad or Houndsley and Catina on her own, as she now enjoys having them read to her. They are charming stories with dear characters, and I’m happy to read them. But I prefer the greater nuance and complexity of language in picture books and novels, both meant for experienced readers — whether the parent reading to the child or, later, the child reading on her own. In between, we abandon early readers, leaving them to travel the broad paths alone, offering no invitation to explore the rockier byways hand in hand.

In the space between Some Pig and Charlotte’s Web, I wish there were a another version, not a chapter book, but the entire story with vignettes of Charlotte and Wilbur and Fern on every page, similar to E.H. Shepard’s images of Pooh and Piglet and Christopher Robin, which offer a glimpse of the Hundred Acre Wood without elaborating every detail. Such a version would add a turn to the spiral, like Pooh and Piglet chasing a Woozle, or Charlotte spinning her web.

One Response to “the spiral of children’s literature”

  1. 1 Brenda
    October 29th, 2008 at 8:44 am

    I just found your site and was so impressed I added a link to my blog. I have to admit two things… first of all, you’re right- reading childhood classics as an adult totally ROCKS! I recommend the Secret Garden as one of my favs. Secondly, your List of Candidates is quite impressive. I may have to add a few to my site as well. Keep up the good work.