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New Beginnings: Charlotte's Web and More - rhcrayon: The Blog!

Jan. 26th, 2009

12:00 am - New Beginnings: Charlotte's Web and More

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New Beginnings

Just in time for the first Westside Schmooze of the year
the first weekend after the Schmooze
the Inauguration
Chinese New Year
comes this post on New Beginnings!

So, you know how E.B. White's Charlotte's Web contains what is probably the most famous first line in children's book history?

"Where's Papa going with that ax?" said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast.
     —Charlotte's Web, E.B. White (Middle Grade, Newbery Honor). HarperCollins, 1952

Did you know that other versions of this opening exist, that are totally different?? Earlier drafts?? And that they are totally available to the public?!?!

Well, they're "totally available" if you contact the super nice librarians at Cornell University's Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections and ask them to look them up for you—and those librarians are so nice as to type them up and email them back. That's what Westside Schmoozer Eric Drachman did—and what the librarians did!!—in preparation for our first Westside Schmooze of 2009.


I love this opening to Charlotte's Web beyond all reason and can't imagine the whole world doesn't want to hear what the earlier drafts sounded like. I think it's okay to post them . . .

Here is the email from the librarian:

Dear Eric,

I have been able to locate three very different starts to "Charlotte's Web.

1. Chapter I. The Barn (in White's hand)
A barn can have a horse in it, and a barn can have a cow in it, and a barn can have hens scratching in the chaff and swallows flying in and out through the door -- but if a barn hasn't got a pig in it, it is hardly worth talking about. I am very Glad to say that Mr. Zuckerman's barn had a pig in it, and therefore I feel free to talk about it as much as I want to. The pig's name was Wilbur.

2. Chapter I. Escape (in White's hand)
I shall speak first of Wilbur.
Wilbur was a small beautiful, nicely behaved symmetrical pig living in a manure pile in the cellar of a barn. He was what farmers call a spring pig -- which simply means that he was born in springtime. But there is no use talking about Wilbur until we have looked into the matter of the barn itself. The barn was very large. It was very old.

3. Chapter I (typed and corrected in White's hand)
At midnight, John Arable pulled his boots on, lit a lantern, and walked out to the hog house. The sky was clear, the earth smelled of springtime. Inside the hog house, the sow lay on her side; her eyes were closed. Huddled in a corner stood the newborn pigs, eleven of them. They had their heads together, in a circle, like football players before a play

There is no mention in any of them of the axe at the beginning.

I hope this meets with your request. If you have any further questions, do not hesitate to email again.

[super nice librarian's name redacted, though I'm not sure this is necessary]

They actually sound pretty good, don't they? (Some Schmoozers wished they sounded worse.) If you read the beginning to Chapter 3 in the book, you can see how E.B. White recycled and used many of the lines from his opening about the barn, so that work wasn't wasted. My own copy has that part underlined with smiley faces—by a younger me—so I am happy for the writer about that.

The final version of the opening definitely communicates all of the elements we mentioned at the Schmooze that a great opening might: intended genre/age group, tone, theme ("MURDER!!"/death ;) ), setting, and (optional) who the main characters will be. I personally have always also loved the opening to Charlotte's Web for another reason: It doesn't feel like an opening at all. You practically fall face-first into the kitchen and are off and running, without realizing you're only one line in.

Our Westside Schmooze topic this month was Beginnings--as in, what kinds of first lines will grab readers' and editors' attention, and do the openings to today's successful children's books all possess this special something? This was the first Westside Schmooze after the holidays and the first to be led by Lee Wind and me as its new Co-Coordinators. Our big idea was to invite everyone to bring in their own opening lines, and, after some initial discussion of the topic, to mix them in with beginnings from already published books. We read them out loud, and everyone discussed what they got out of each and whether (by a show of hands) they'd read on. The writers didn't have to reveal themselves, though some did. The quality of work brought in was outstanding.

You can read how the whole night went at Lee's fantastic recap at the official SCBWI Tri-Regions of Southern California Schmooze Blog. He got all our notes onlines, plus links to more resources!

For my part, I just want to say:

1) As much as I've spoken up at the Schmooze before, I've never had the experience of opening my mouth and suddenly seeing all heads in the room go down, every person silent and writing. It was a little disconcerting. But I'm a big note-taker, too, so I tried to be cool.

2) Lee and I totally overprepared. Just choosing which published books to read from grew into a task. After narrowing our favorites to those recently published and bestselling—ideally to indicate what publishers and readers are buying now—and after defining our categories—Picture Books, Chapter Books, Middle Grades, Young Adults, graphic novels; fiction, non-fiction; historical, fantasy, realistic, funny, and edgy—to make sure we had a balanced representation; and after making allowances for a few older books that were either really, really successful (or that I really, really loved), by the time I'd added my picks to Lee's, we had 63 selections, all typed up.

At the Schmooze, we read a total of 26 Beginnings: 20 brought in by Schmoozers, and 6 brought in by us.

So, here are a few more we didn't read. You tell me: Which ones are your favorites? What kinds of books do these first lines promise, and which ones make you want to read more? (You can read the 6 we did share, at the Schmooze recap linked above.)

I did not choose any books based on whether I loved their first lines. I didn't want to bias the topic ("What makes a great opening?") according to my tastes. Lee and I were more interested in whether first lines pulled from books that were loved overall held up under the group's scrutiny. )

(Also Note:
We didn't show any book covers at the Schmooze, so you have a different advantage. It's just more fun to post pictures. But maybe this is more true to how readers choose their books, anyway.)

The day I decided to steal a dog was the same day my best friend, Luanne Godfrey, found out I lived in a car.
    I had told Mama she would find out sooner or later, seeing as how she’s so nosy and all. But Mama had rolled her eyes and said, “Just get on up there to the bus stop, Georgina, and quit your whining.”

—How to Steal a Dog, Barbara O’Connor (Middle Grade). Frances Foster Books/Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007

It’s hard work being a kid.
    First of all, there’s school. Then there’s soccer practice, violin class, voice lessons, walking Sparky, babysitting your little sister, not to mention having to eat your vegetables!
    So, one day, Brian decided to retire.

—The Retired Kid, Jon Agee (Picture Book, NY Times Pick of the Year). Hyperion Books for Children/Disney, 2008

Look, I didn’t want to be a half-blood.
    If you’re reading this because you think you might be one, my advice is: close this book right now. Believe whatever lie your mom or dad told you about your birth, and try to lead a normal life.
—Percy Jackson & The Olympians, Book One: The Lightning Thief, Rick Riordan (Middle Grade fantasy). Miramax Books/Hyperion Books for Children, 2005

When Bird woke up, he was grumpy.
    He was too grumpy to eat. He was too grumpy to play. In fact, he was too grumpy to fly.
    “Looks like I’m walking today,” said Bird.

—Grumpy Bird, Jeremy Tankard (Picture Book). Scholastic Press, 2007

Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much. They were the last people you’d expect to be involved in anything strange or mysterious, because they just didn’t hold with such nonsense.
    Mr. Dursley was the director of a firm called Grunnings, which made drills.

—Harry Potter and the Sorceror’s Stone, J.K. Rowling. Illustrations by Mary Grandpré (Middle Grade fantasy). Arthur A. Levine Books/Scholastic Press, 1997

Bat is waking, upside down as usual, hanging by her toenails. Her beady eyes open. Her pixie ears twitch. She shakes her thistledown fur.

—Bat Loves the Night, Nicola Davies, ill. By Sarah Fox-Davies (non-fiction Picture Book). Candlewick Press, 2004

The Stein family lived in the pretty pink house with lovely purple shutters down at the end of Daffodil Street. Everything about the house was bright and cheery. Everything, that is, except the upstairs bedroom with the tiny round window.
    That room belonged to Franny K. Stein, and she liked to keep it dark, and spooky, and creepy.

—Franny K. Stein Mad Scientist #1: Lunch Walks Among Us, Jim Benton (younger Middle Grade? Chapter Book?). Simon & Schuster, 2003

I am running.
    That’s the first thing I remember. Running.
I carry something, my arm curled around it, hugging it to my chest. Bread, of course. Someone is chasing me. “Stop! Thief!” I run. People. Shoulders. Shoes. “Stop! Thief!”

—Milkweed, Jerry Spinelli (Middle Grade/Young Adult? historical fiction about a boy in the Holocaust). Alfred A. Knopf, 2003

Claudia knew that she could never pull off the old-fashioned kind of running away. That is, running away in the heat of anger with a knapsack on her back. She didn’t like discomfort; even picnics were untidy and inconvenient: all those insects and the sun melting the icing on the cupcakes. Therefore, she decided that her leaving home would not be just running from somewhere but would be running to somewhere. To a large place, a comfortable place, an indoor place, and preferably a beautiful place. And that's why she decided upon the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.

—From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, E.L. Konigsburg (Middle Grade, Newbery Medal winner). Simon & Schuster, 1967

On Career Day Lily visited her dad’s work with him and discovered he worked for a mad scientist who wanted to rule the earth through destruction and desolation. 
    Up until then life hadn’t been very interesting for Lily. There had not been very many mad scientists.

—Whales on Stilts, M.T. Anderson (Middle Grade awesome). Harcourt, Inc., 2005

Everybody knows the story of the Three Little Pigs. Or at least they think they do. But I’ll let you in on a little secret. Nobody knows the real story, because nobody has ever heard my side of the story.
    I’m the wolf. Alexander T. Wolf.
    You can call me Al.
—The True Story of the 3 Little Pigs, Jon Scieszka. Ill. by Lane Smith. (Picture Book awesome) Viking/Penguin, 1989

I’m a sweating fat kid standing on the edge of the subway platform staring at the tracks. I’m seventeen years old, weigh 296 pounds, and I’m six-foot-one. I have a crew cut, yes a crew cut, sallow skin, and the kind of mouth that puckers when I breathe. I’m wearing a shirt that reads MIAMI BEACH—SPRING BREAK 1997, and huge, bland tan pants—the only kind of pants I own. Eight pairs, all tan.

—Fat Kid Rules the World, K.L. Going (Young Adult awesome). G.P. Putnam’s Sons / Penguin Putnam Books for Young Readers, 2003

“Happy Year of the Rat!” Dad said as he toasted us with his glass. The clinking noises filled the air as the adults knocked glasses of wine against the kids’ cups of juice.
    It was the eve of Chinese New Year and my best friend, Melody, and her family had come for the celebration dinner just as they had for the last two years.

—The Year of the Rat, Grace Lin (Middle Grade, and a book I once blogged about here). Little, Brown and Company, 2007

Happy Chinese New Year, Everyone!! Happy Year of the Ox!


Seeing these different openings to Charlotte's Web reminded me of this great article by Orson Scott Card on writing Beginnings, that Stephanie Ruble once posted on her blog. In this article, Orson Scott Card reveals four completely different first chapters he wrote for his first sequel to Ender's Game (the series of sequels about Bean, not the series of sequels that were harder sci-fi). I had just read (and loved) Ender's Game, but hadn't ready any sequels yet. This article knocked my socks off. Talk about someone who knows what he's doing.

Someone asked a very interesting question at the Schmooze. When people commented that certain beginnings sounded "older" in style than what might get published today—particularly those written from an omniscient point of view—the question was whether we could talk about this supposed difference between children's books published a couple decades ago vs. now.

I have a couple ideas on this; nothing I'd go out on a limb for (yet). Maybe, for my next post, I'll type up a few beginnings from beloved, older books, and we can search for any differences together.

Of the children's books referenced in this post, #9 above and, of course, Charlotte's Web (1952) are the oldest!


[User Picture]
Date:January 26th, 2009 06:54 pm (UTC)
Oh, how cool to see the previous drafts of my absolute favorite opening line. Though I have to agree with other folks: it would have been reassuring if they had stunk.

Thanks for sharing!
(Reply) (Thread)
[User Picture]
Date:January 27th, 2009 05:23 am (UTC)


I aspire to be like the librarian that helped your friend with the Charlotte's Web quotes!!!

Your list reminded me that I've been meaning to finish reading Fat Kid Rules the World. I started reading it during a hugely busy time and had to return it before I could finish. I found it intriguing.

Alex read The Lightning Thief and loved it. He wants to read the sequel. FYI he just turned 9.
(Reply) (Thread)
Date:January 30th, 2009 08:57 pm (UTC)


this is awesome!
You are awesome!
Ahhhh! So much AWESOME-NESS! I love it!

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[User Picture]
Date:February 13th, 2009 08:09 pm (UTC)
Holy cow! What a great post! I love reading the different Charlotte's Web beginnings. Even though the other beginnings are good I can see why he discarded them. The in-the-moment dialog from the little girl who cares for the pig says it all.
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Date:February 14th, 2009 07:39 am (UTC)


Your blog is so freaking informative! Love it!
(Reply) (Thread)
Date:February 14th, 2009 07:40 am (UTC)

Re: wow

oops. It's Bonnie, btw. hehe
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