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10 Things You Might Not Know About Charlotte’s Web

In Charlotte’s Web, E.B. White created beloved characters out of the most unlikely of animals—a runt of a pig named Wilbur and a spider named Charlotte, who weaves words in her web to save his life. This poignant tale about life and death on a farm is still one of the best selling children’s books of all time. 

1. THE FARM IN THE BOOK WAS REAL.

“This is a story of the barn,” E.B. White said. “I wrote it for children, and to amuse myself." Along with being an essayist and co-author of The Elements of Style, White owned a farm in Maine. While he wrote Charlotte’s Web in the property's boathouse, he was imagining the farm's red barn, where he kept geese, sheep, and pigs. The barn even had a swing like the one described in the story: “Mr. Zuckerman had the best swing in the county. It was a single long piece of heavy rope tied to the beam over the north doorway." 

2. A SICKLY PIG INSPIRED WILBUR.

As a farmer, White raised pigs for slaughter. As an animal lover, he felt conflicted about killing animals that he'd come to like. In one case, a pig he owned got sick. Even though White had originally planned to kill the pig for food, he devoted himself to nursing it back to health, staying up with it all night and calling the vet—but the pig died anyway. White seemed surprised by how much its death bothered him. He wrote in the essay "Death Of A Pig," “He had evidently become precious to me, not that he represented a distant nourishment in a hungry time, but that he had suffered in a suffering world.”

3. CHARLOTTE WAS BASED ON A REAL SPIDER. 

One day, White noticed a spider in his barn making an egg sack. He was so interested, he got a stepladder to take a closer look. After that, he never saw the spider again. When he was getting ready to go to New York City for the winter, he decided to take the egg sack with him. He cut it down with a razor blade and put it in a candy box with holes punched in the top. Then he left the box on top of his bureau in his New York bedroom. Soon enough, the egg sack hatched and baby spiders emerged from the box.

“They strung tiny lines from my comb to my brush, from my brush to my mirror, and from my mirror to my nail scissors,” he wrote in a letter. “They were very busy and almost invisible, they were so small. We all lived together happily for a couple of weeks, and then somebody whose duty it was to dust my dresser balked, and I broke up the show. At the present time, three of Charlotte's granddaughters are trapping at the foot of the stairs in my barn cellar, where the morning light, coming through the east window, illuminates their embroidery and makes it seem even more wonderful than it is.”  

4. CHARLOTTE'S NAME IS BASED ON SCIENCE.

When White started writing the story, he called the spider Charlotte Epeira because he misidentified the spider in his barn as a gray cross spider, Epeira sclopetaria. Then he contacted an expert at the American Museum of Natural History and was able to correctly identify the spider as Araneus cavaticus—the common barn spider. Thus, his spider was renamed Charlotte A. Cavatica. 

5. FERN WASN'T ADDED UNTIL THE LAST DRAFT OF THE BOOK.

“'Where’s Papa going with that axe?’ said Fern.” This first line of Charlotte’s Web feels so perfect that’s hard to believe that Fern was almost not in the book. At first, White struggled with how to start the story, unsure whether to begin with Wilbur or Charlotte. Then at the last minute, he added Fern, the little girl who pleads with her father not to kill the runt piglet named Wilbur. Although she fades from the story as she matures, Fern adds layers of humanity that connects directly to the young reader. 

6. WHITE'S EDITOR HAD NO IDEA HE WAS WRITING THE BOOK.

After the success of Stuart Little in 1945, White’s editor Ursula Nordstrom didn’t expect him to be writing another book until he showed up suddenly in her office with Charlotte’s Web. She was shocked and asked if the manuscript was a carbon copy. "No," he said, "this is the only copy; I didn't make a carbon copy." Then he got on the elevator and left. Not wanting to risk losing the only manuscript of the book, Nordstrom sat down and read it right there. “I couldn't believe that it was so good!” she wrote. The book was published in 1952 and was a huge success, selling 100,000 copies in 16 months.

7. THE ILLUSTRATOR WANTED TO GIVE CHARLOTTE A WOMAN'S FACE.

Garth Williams, who also illustrated Stuart Little and the Little House on the Prairie series, wasn’t sure how to draw Charlotte at first. He wanted her to look friendly and charming, two words most people wouldn’t associate with spiders. He tried drawing her with a woman’s face and even went so far as to make her look like the Mona Lisa (you can see some of those sketches here). Both White and Nordstrom nixed the idea. Finally, they settled on drawing an anatomically correct spider with two little pinpoints for eyes.

8. PEOPLE CRITICIZED CHARLOTTE'S WEB FOR DEPICTING DEATH.

While Charlotte’s Web received great reviews, it was still disparaged by some educators and parents because of the characters—a book about a spider?—and because Charlotte dies. In a letter to Nordstrom (which was unpublished but cited in The Annotated Charlotte's Web), White made fun of the criticism with a bit of satire: “I am working on a new book about a boa constrictor and a litter of hyenas. The boa constrictor swallows the babies one by one, and the mother hyena dies laughing.”

9. HOLLYWOOD WANTED TO CUT CHARLOTTE'S DEATH FROM THE CARTOON.

White resisted Hollywood at first, nervous about what a studio would do to his book. Finally, in 1973, Hanna-Barbera made a cartoon of Charlotte’s Web with Debbie Reynolds as the voice of Charlotte. Predictably, Hollywood tried to get a happier ending for the story, worried about a kids' film where one of the main characters dies. But White held firm that Charlotte’s death was essential to the story and in the end, he won. The cartoon remains faithful to the book.

10. WHITE RECORDED THE AUDIO BOOK OF CHARLOTTE'S WEB IN 1970.

Even though it had been almost 20 years since he wrote the book, Charlotte’s death still made him emotional. "Every time, he broke down when he got to Charlotte's death," Michael Sims, author of The Story of Charlotte's Web: E.B. White's Eccentric Life in Nature and the Birth of an American Classic, told NPR. "And he would do it, and it would mess up. ... He took 17 takes to get through Charlotte's death without his voice cracking or beginning to cry." You can listen to him reading the book above—but keep a tissue handy, just in case.

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15 Powerful Quotes From Margaret Atwood
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MICHAL CIZEK/AFP/Getty Images

It turns out the woman behind such eerily prescient novels as The Handmaid’s Tale and Oryx and Crake is just as wise as her tales are haunting. Here are 15 of the most profound quips from author, activist, and Twitter enthusiast Margaret Atwood, who was born on this day in 1939.

1. On her personal philosophy

 “Optimism means better than reality; pessimism means worse than reality. I’m a realist.”

— From a 2004 interview with The Guardian

2. On the reality of being female

“Men often ask me, Why are your female characters so paranoid? It’s not paranoia. It’s recognition of their situation.”

— From a 1990 interview with The Paris Review

3. On limiting how her politics influence her characters

“You know the myth: Everybody had to fit into Procrustes’ bed and if they didn’t, he either stretched them or cut off their feet. I’m not interested in cutting the feet off my characters or stretching them to make them fit my certain point of view.”

— From a 1997 interview with Mother Jones

4. On so-called “pretty” works of literature

“I don’t know whether there are any really pretty novels … All of the motives a human being may have, which are mixed, that’s the novelists’ material. … We like to think of ourselves as really, really good people. But look in the mirror. Really look. Look at your own mixed motives. And then multiply that.”

— From a 2010 interview with The Progressive

5. On the artist’s relationship with her fans

“The artist doesn’t necessarily communicate. The artist evokes … [It] actually doesn’t matter what I feel. What matters is how the art makes you feel.”

— From a 2004 interview with The Guardian

6. On the challenges of writing non-fiction

“When I was young I believed that ‘nonfiction’ meant ‘true.’ But you read a history written in, say, 1920 and a history of the same events written in 1995 and they’re very different. There may not be one Truth—there may be several truths—but saying that is not to say that reality doesn’t exist.”

— From a 1997 interview with Mother Jones

7. On poetry

“The genesis of a poem for me is usually a cluster of words. The only good metaphor I can think of is a scientific one: dipping a thread into a supersaturated solution to induce crystal formation.”

— From a 1990 interview with The Paris Review

8. On being labeled an icon

“All these things set a standard of behavior that you don’t necessarily wish to live up to. If you’re put on a pedestal you’re supposed to behave like a pedestal type of person. Pedestals actually have a limited circumference. Not much room to move around.”

— From a 2013 interview with The Telegraph

9. On how we’re all born writers

“[Everyone] ‘writes’ in a way; that is, each person has a ‘story’—a personal narrative—which is constantly being replayed, revised, taken apart and put together again. The significant points in this narrative change as a person ages—what may have been tragedy at 20 is seen as comedy or nostalgia at 40.”

— From a 1990 interview with The Paris Review

10. On the oppression at the center of The Handmaid's Tale

“Nothing makes me more nervous than people who say, ‘It can’t happen here. Anything can happen anywhere, given the right circumstances.” 

— From a 2015 lecture to West Point cadets

11. On the discord between men and women

“‘Why do men feel threatened by women?’ I asked a male friend of mine. … ‘They’re afraid women will laugh at them,’ he said. ‘Undercut their world view.’ … Then I asked some women students in a poetry seminar I was giving, ‘Why do women feel threatened by men?’ ‘They’re afraid of being killed,’ they said.”

— From Atwood’s Second Words: Selected Critical Prose, 1960-1982

12. On the challenges of expressing oneself

“All writers feel struck by the limitations of language. All serious writers.”

— From a 1990 interview with The Paris Review

13. On selfies

“I say they should enjoy it while they can. You’ll be happy later to have taken pictures of yourself when you looked good. It’s human nature. And it does no good to puritanically say, ‘Oh, you shouldn’t be doing that,’ because people do.”

— From a 2013 interview with The Telegraph

14. On the value of popular kids' series (à la Harry Potter and Percy Jackson)

"It put a lot of kids onto reading; it made reading cool. I’m sure a lot of later adult book clubs came out of that experience. Let people begin where they are rather than pretending that they’re something else, or feeling that they should be something else."

— From a 2014 interview with The Huffington Post

15. On why even the bleakest post-apocalyptic novels are, deep down, full of hope

“Any novel is hopeful in that it presupposes a reader. It is, actually, a hopeful act just to write anything, really, because you’re assuming that someone will be around to [read] it.”

— From a 2011 interview with The Atlantic 

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China's New Tianjin Binhai Library is Breathtaking—and Full of Fake Books
FRED DUFOUR/AFP/Getty Images
FRED DUFOUR/AFP/Getty Images

A massive new library in Tianjin, China, is gaining international fame among bibliophiles and design buffs alike. As Arch Daily reports, the five-story Tianjin Binhai Library has capacity for more than 1 million books, which visitors can read in a spiraling, modernist auditorium with floor-to-ceiling bookshelves.

Several years ago, municipal officials in Tianjin commissioned a team of Dutch and Japanese architects to design five new buildings, including the library, for a cultural center in the city’s Binhai district. A glass-covered public corridor connects these structures, but the Tianjin Binhai Library is still striking enough to stand out on its own.

The library’s main atrium could be compared to that of the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Guggenheim Museum in New York City. But there's a catch: Its swirling bookshelves don’t actually hold thousands of books. Look closer, and you’ll notice that the shelves are printed with digital book images. About 200,000 real books are available in other rooms of the library, but the jaw-dropping main room is primarily intended for socialization and reading, according to Mashable.

The “shelves”—some of which can also serve as steps or seating—ascend upward, curving around a giant mirrored sphere. Together, these elements resemble a giant eye, prompting visitors to nickname the attraction “The Eye of Binhai,” reports Newsweek. In addition to its dramatic main auditorium, the 36,000-square-foot library also contains reading rooms, lounge areas, offices, and meeting spaces, and has two rooftop patios.

Following a three-year construction period, the Tianjin Binhai Library opened on October 1, 2017. Want to visit, but can’t afford a trip to China? Take a virtual tour by checking out the photos below.

A general view of the Tianjin Binhai Library
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People visiting China's Tianjin Binhai Library.
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A general view of China's Tianjin Binhai Library.
FRED DUFOUR/AFP/Getty Images

A woman taking pictures at China's Tianjin Binhai Library.
FRED DUFOUR/AFP/Getty Images

A man visiting China's Tianjin Binhai Library.
FRED DUFOUR/AFP/Getty Images

A woman looking at books at China's Tianjin Binhai Library.
FRED DUFOUR/AFP/Getty Images

A general view of China's Tianjin Binhai Library.
FRED DUFOUR/AFP/Getty Images

People visiting China's Tianjin Binhai Library.
FRED DUFOUR/AFP/Getty Images

[h/t Newsweek]

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