Last year one of my favorite librarians took on the “Newbery challenge”: reading, in order, every children’s novel that has won the John Newbery Medal since its inception in 1922. I lingered at the circulation desk, curious to hear how well the older prizewinners had aged. Juli Anna pulled a face — half pained, half embarrassed for these bygone titans of children’s literature. “Many of the books are sexist and horribly racist,” she said. “It’s probably for the best that most children aren’t reading them anymore.”
If you’re like me, the first novel that comes to mind when someone says “Newbery” is Charlotte’s Web, a book so beloved that nobody seems to remember it won an Honor and not the actual prize. (Have you read Secret of the Andes, the Newbery Medal winner of 1952? Me neither.) It’s no surprise that so much of American children’s literature (even the award winners) should reflect the regrettable values of the times in which they were written, but surely E.B. White’s barnyard fable of friendship and loss is still pure…?
In case you have not anticipated my answer from the title of this article, let me introduce myself as a writer of children’s novels who is also an ethical vegan, meaning that I am delighted and infuriated by Charlotte’s Web in equal measure. Let’s start at the beginning, with one of the most captivating first lines ever written:
“Where’s Papa going with that ax?”
Fern argues passionately for Wilbur’s life, because like most children, she can see a part of herself in the tiny defenseless piglet. She makes this argument explicitly: “If I had been very small at birth, would you have killed me?…I see no difference.” Her father relents, and Fern is permitted to feed and cuddle the rescued piglet.
We read in the following paragraph that the kitchen smells of coffee and bacon. Fern saves a pig’s life…before eating another pig. The cognitive dissonance is thus encoded by the end of page three.
It is a fact — not so widely remarked upon as it ought to be — that as a New Yorker-turned-farmer in Maine, E.B. White raised and slaughtered pigs on a regular basis. He got the idea for Charlotte’s Web after one of his pigs died of a mysterious illness. To his credit, White did acknowledge his “duplicity” in a promotional essay a few weeks before the novel’s release:
A farm is a peculiar problem for a man who likes animals, because the fate of most livestock is that they are murdered by their benefactors. The creatures may live serenely but they end violently, and the odor of doom hangs about them always…Day by day I became better acquainted with my pig, and he with me, and the fact that the whole adventure pointed toward an eventual piece of double-dealing on my part lent an eerie quality to the thing. I do not like to betray a person or a creature, and I tend to agree with Mr. E.M. Forster that in these times the duty of a man, above all else, is to be reliable.
It was a duty he never actually shouldered. According to Michael Sims’s The Story of Charlotte’s Web, many years later the author’s granddaughter was distraught to learn that her grandfather was planning to slaughter a pig the next morning. She had her father (White’s stepson, Roger) drive her to White’s farm late that night to tack a poster she’d made — “SOME PIG” as it appears in the novel, inside one of Charlotte’s marvelous spider-webs — to the boards of the pig pen.
In the morning White found the sign, and killed the pig anyway.
Sims and other biographers write almost rapturously of White’s lifelong devotion to the natural world. “All his life En had been kind to animals; he had tended to ‘pigeons, dogs, snakes, polliwogs, turtles, rabbits, lizards, singing birds, chameleons, caterpillars, and mice,’” as Melissa Sweet puts it in her graphic biography, Some Writer! Yet on the facing page (20, if you happen to have a copy handy), Sweet includes a poem the school-aged White had written about trapping and killing a mouse. Like most humans, White’s kindness to animals was inconsistent at best.
Because farmed animals are not part of the “natural world” — having been domesticated by our ancestors many thousands of years ago and forcibly reproduced ever since — it is easy for humans to say they “love” pets and wildlife while forgetting that the meat on their plates used to be animals, too — creatures who feel pain and fear and pleasure just as keenly as cats and dogs and elephants and giraffes do. Children’s author Jennifer Armstrong articulates this troubling discrepancy in a 2010 essay for The Horn Book:
How does a child’s developing moral/ethical self resolve the jarring disconnect between the animal books she is given to read in the library and the animal meat she is given for lunch in the cafeteria? What is she to make of the trusted adult who holds in one hand a living baby chick to caress with tender care and a chicken nugget in the other hand to eat with special sauce?
Sadly, very few parents, educators, and children’s authors are willing to acknowledge their complicity. When the Teen Story Troupe from the Shaumburg Township District Library in Illinois presented Charlotte’s Web as horror story for the 90-Second Newberys — with “John Arable” wearing a paper bag evocative of an executioner’s hood, and another student-actor dangling strips of raw meat in front of the camera in a menacing fashion, growling “bacoooooon!” — parents petitioned to have the entry removed from the festival. The middle-schoolers who made that video are braver (not to mention more intelligent) than the parents in question, but even they will likely be indoctrinated into this longstanding system of cruelty and domination.
Despite our cultural romanticization of the family farm, all our cooing over cute little baby chicks and calves and piglets, we are implicitly taught that farmed animals’ lives don’t matter. Yet the human protagonist of Charlotte’s Web insists that they do, and as Stephen King and many other storytellers have explicitly taught us: out of its carefully crafted “web of lies,” good fiction always tells the truth. If Wilbur’s life doesn’t matter, then why are we reading this novel? And if Wilbur’s life does matter, then why wouldn’t every pig’s?
Jennifer Armstrong positions the concept of animal rights on what she dubs the “moral/ethical escalator,” meaning that we must always be moving upward towards a kinder, more peaceful society. After all, how can we teach our children to care about the most vulnerable members of human society — the elderly and the disabled, trans folks and refugees and anyone else who is marginalized and discriminated against — if we aren’t willing to consider the most vulnerable creatures of all? How can we raise our children to become wise stewards of the Earth when we are still supporting animal agriculture, which is indisputably one of the primary causes of climate change? Those racist and sexist Newbery winners are at the bottom of the escalator, and in time we’ll be able to look back and downwards on our exploitation of animals, too.
I like to think that if E.B. White were alive today — in this exciting new vegan world of jackfruit “pulled pork” and smoked tempeh “bacon,” cultured cashew cheeses and dairy-free creameries — he’d be willing to admit that one’s self-image as a compassionate human cannot logically co-exist with a taste for fried pig-flesh. I imagine him growing mushrooms and micro-greens instead of raising animals for slaughter. “By what miracle on a farm could a pig’s life be saved?,” writes Melissa Sweet — as if there aren’t many farms in the world that only grow things, where any pigs, cows, or chickens you encounter have been rescued from factory farms and will die old, without fear.
Take it from a voracious reader who hasn’t eaten “real” bacon since high school—if you choose kindness over tradition and give your taste-buds a chance to regenerate, I can promise you this: whenever you smell bacon, you’ll think of Wilbur, not food.
Camille DeAngelis is the author of several fantasy novels, a travel guide to Ireland, and two books of practical philosophy: Life Without Envy: Ego Management for Creative People and A Bright Clean Mind: Veganism for Creative Transformation. If you liked this post, you can join the comet party.