The book begins when John Arable's sow gives birth to a litter of piglets, and Mr. Arable discovers one of them is a runt and decides to kill it. However, his eight year old daughter Fern begs him to let it live. Therefore her father gives it to Fern as a pet, and she names the piglet Wilbur. Wilbur is hyperactive and always exploring new things. He lives with Fern for a few weeks and then is sold to her uncle, Homer Zuckerman. Although Fern visits him at the Zuckermans' farm as often as she can, her visits decrease as she grows older, and Wilbur gets lonelier day after day. Eventually, a warm and soothing voice tells him that she is going to be his friend. The next day, he wakes up and meets his new friend: Charlotte, the grey spider.
Wilbur soon becomes a member of the community of animals who live in the cellar of Zuckerman's barn. When the old sheep in the barn cellar tells Wilbur that he is going to be killed and eaten at Christmas, he turns to Charlotte for help. Charlotte has the idea of writing words in her web extolling Wilbur's excellence ("some pig," "terrific," "radiant," and eventually "humble"), reasoning that if she can make Wilbur sufficiently famous, he will not be killed. Thanks to Charlotte's efforts, and with the assistance of the gluttonous rat Templeton, Wilbur not only lives, but goes to the county fair with Charlotte and wins a prize. Having reached the end of her natural lifespan, Charlotte dies at the fair. Wilbur repays Charlotte by bringing home with him the sac of eggs (her "magnum opus") she had laid at the fair before dying. When Charlotte's eggs hatch at Zuckerman's farm, most of them leave to make their own lives elsewhere, except for three: Joy, Aranea, and Nellie, who remain there as friends to Wilbur; but none of them can replace Charlotte.
E.B. White, the author of twenty books of prose and poetry, was awarded the 1970 Laura Ingalls Wilder Medal for his children's books, Stuart Little and Charlotte's Web. This award is now given every three years "to an author or illustrator whose books, published in the United States, have, over a period of years, make a substantial and lasting contribution to literature for children." The year 1970 also marked the publication of Mr. White's third book for children, The Trumpet of the Swan, honored by The International Board on Books for Young People as an outstanding example of literature with international importance. In 1973, it received the Sequoyah Award (Oklahoma) and the William Allen White Award (Kansas), voted by the school children of those states as their "favorite book" of the year.
For his total contribution to American letters, Mr. White was awarded the 1971 National Medal for Literature. In 1963, President John F. Kennedy named Mr. White as one of thirty-one Americans to receive the Presidential Medal for Freedom. Mr. White also received the National Institute of Arts and Letters' Gold Medal for Essays and Criticism, and in 1973 the members of the Institute elected him to the American Academy of Arts and Letters, a society of fifty members. He also received honorary degrees from seven colleges and universities. Mr. White died on October 1, 1985.