I’ve been reading Charlotte’s Web to the boys, just a chapter or two a few nights a week.
Charlotte’s Web was one of my favorites growing up. I didn’t have the words for it back then, but I knew that there was something special about reading E. B. White’s classic. I remember feeling completely overwhelmed by the story—touched by Charlotte and Wilbur’s friendship. I was overwhelmed by Charlotte’s kindness when she saved Wilbur’s life. And I was overwhelmed with grief when Charlotte died, leaving her small children behind. My heart ached.
I see now that reading Charlotte’s Web was an important experience for me. Along with The Giving Tree and The Velveteen Rabbit, it was one of the first times I felt, deep in my bones, how powerful reading could be.
Neither one of my parents read to me or my brother when we were children. It wasn’t something my mom and dad, first generation immigrants, knew you were “supposed” to do (I sometimes envy parenting back then, before you had websites and magazines and books and experts devoted to telling you how you were failing your children). So many of my students fondly recall the joy of being read to, of climbing into a parent’s lap and entering the wardrobe into Narnia or through platform 9 3/4 towards Hogwarts together. I didn’t have experiences like that.
It’s been more than 30 years since I first Charlotte’s Web. Revisiting the Zuckerman farm with my boys has given me a chance to remember how much that book meant to me. I’ve also been surprised with how wonderfully well-written the book is (though I don’t know why I should be surprised; it is E. B. White, after all). Take this description of Wilbur’s trough:
Wilbur grunted. He gulped and sucked, and sucked and gulped, making swishing and swooshing noises, anxious to get everything at once. It was a delicious meal—skim milk, wheat middling, leftover pancakes, half a doughnut, the rind of a summer squash, two pieces of stale toast, a third of a gingersnap, a fish tail, one orange peel, several noodles from a noodle soup, the scum off a cup of cocoa, an ancient jelly roll, a strip of paper from the lining of the garbage pail, and a spoonful of raspberry jello.
We’re about halfway through the book. Toby, my seven-year-old, laughed upon hearing that “from one to two, Wilbur planned to sleep,” and that “from two to three, he planned to scratch itchy places by rubbing against the fence.” When Goose revealed that Wilbur was going to be killed come November, Toby gasped. “How could they do that to him?” he mourned. “That makes me sad,” he added, then moved just a little bit closer to me as I continued to read.
I’m not sure how I’ll do when we get to the end of the book. When I was younger, I saw Charlotte’s death mostly from the point-of-view of her children, upset at the idea of being left behind.
Now, as a mother, I feel like I understand Charlotte a little bit better.
This post is part of the “Slice of Life” series, organized by the teachers at Two Writing Teachers, whose goal is to give teachers a place to write and reflect. This March, more than 200 teachers have committed to daily writing. If you’d like to read more “slices” (from other teachers and even some students), visit twowritingteachers.wordpress.com/challenges.