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'Charlotte's Web,' more children's books

Children's classics with anniversaries this year:

Children's classics with anniversaries this year: "Charlotte's Web" , "The Little House" and " A Wrinkle in Time." Photo Credit: Newsday/John Paraskevas

One measure of a great book is whether you can reread it and always find something new to think about. By this yardstick, E.B. White's "Charlotte's Web" (Harper, $7.99 paper, all ages) is undeniably great. Now celebrating its 60th anniversary, the story works on many levels, from barnyard tale to meditation on the human condition.

The main drama of the book begins when Wilbur, the runt of a pig litter rescued by Fern, the farmer's daughter, discovers that he is destined for slaughter after all. His friend, the gray spider Charlotte, devises a plan to rescue him. "If I can fool a bug," she muses, "I can surely fool a man." She weaves words into her web above the pig's head: "Some pig!" "Radiant." Humans come from miles around to gawk, and Wilbur is saved: "We have no ordinary pig," the awestruck farmer says. Never one for absolutes, the author has the farmer's wife respond: "It seems to me you're a little off. It seems to me we have no ordinary spider."

The down-to-earth introduction to the anniversary edition, written by Kate DiCamillo (author of "Because of Winn-Dixie" and many other splendid children's books), would surely have pleased White. He once responded to a scholarly analysis of "Charlotte's Web": "It's good I did not know what in hell was going on. To have known might well have been catastrophic." DiCamillo reports that she avoided "Charlotte's Web" from childhood until age 31 because she could tell from the cover illustration (by the also immortal Garth Williams) that the book would contain "some sort of misery, and I wanted nothing to do with misery."

When she finally read it -- shamed by a writing teacher -- she discovered "the miracle" of the book: a love of life that encompasses the intoxicating hope of spring, the riot of summer and the coming of fall, when things die. Bad things will happen and readers will cry, DiCamillo says, but they also have Charlotte's assurance to Wilbur that "winter will pass, the days will lengthen, the ice will melt in the pasture pond." For the child spinning the book's alarming cover out of sight in the library rack, DiCamillo writes: "It turns out beautifully, I promise."

 

Also celebrating important literary anniversaries this year are: "A Wrinkle in Time" (50th Anniversary Edition, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $24.99, ages 8 and up). Madeleine L'Engle's story of space-and-time-warping children still offers a great argument against conformity, whether it means standing up to bullies or resisting knee-jerk nationalism. When an alien asks: "What do you suppose you'd do if three of us suddenly arrived on your home planet?" The kids admit: "Shoot you, I guess." From which the aliens conclude: "You're from a dark planet, aren't you?" Now that is something to think about.

"The Little House" by Virginia Lee Burton (70th Anniversary Edition with CD, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $16.99, ages 5-8) shows how one cozy cottage, surrounded by apple trees, sees the distant city grow closer and eventually swallow up the countryside. But there's a happy ending.

Mary Pope Osborne's "Magic Treehouse" series (Random House), a staple on school library shelves, celebrates 20 years. With topics ranging widely from medieval knights to jazz, from volcanoes to dolphins, these books are where many children first learn to love collecting facts. Anniversary plans include a reading tour, classroom activities and a musical theater piece.

 

Sy Montgomery's new biography, "Temple Grandin: How the Girl Who Loved Cows Embraced Autism and Changed the World" (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $17.99, ages 9-12), profiles for young readers an extremely successful -- and possibly the most famous -- person with autism.

Grandin's mother worked hard to find people who wanted to help her difficult child handle her surroundings. A nanny learned to communicate rules to little Temple in pictures rather than through words: A squashed squirrel taught her to watch out for cars on the road. Classmates at a small, inclusive school discovered that she was an inventive companion, known for high-tech kites and creative booby-traps.

Grandin gradually learned that she sees the world much the way animals do. A chance discovery led her to the study of animal science in college and, in time, she became the leading designer of humane facilities in the cattle business. By understanding that fear is, for animals as for her, more alarming than pain, she has improved the treatment of animals in the meat industry. Self-discovery through work: What could be better?

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