Children’s classic “Charlotte’s Web” offers lessons to grownups

Dec 04 2020

Children’s classic “Charlotte’s Web” offers lessons to grownups

“As a piece of work it is just about perfect, and just about magical in the way it is done.”
–Author Eudora Welty reviewing Charlotte’s Web in 1952

If you have some free time during the upcoming Winter Break, you might consider reacquainting yourself with a literary classic: “Charlotte’s Web.” Yes, that beautiful work is still worth reading no matter how long ago you may have read it for the first time.

Author E. B. White draws you in from the very first line:

‘Where’s Papa going with that ax?’ said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast.

This tale from the early 1950’s of the friendship between a girl, a pig, and a spider rightfully retains a spot on classroom reading lists, and I was delighted to discuss it with a few second graders before the Thanksgiving break. They said they were very excited to read it, and they promised to not watch the movie until they had finished the book

Then I suddenly realized that it had been far too long since I read the book. (However, it’s not quite the 70 years ago that a second grader recently thought was the last time I had read “Charlotte’s Web.”) Sheepishly, I approached second-grade teacher Ms. Cook and asked if I could borrow a copy and re-engage with Fern, Wilbur, Charlotte, and Templeton over the holiday. She kindly loaned me a book, so I spent Thanksgiving morning while the rest of the family slept in curled up in bed enjoying this timeless tale and recalling why this work is taught again and again. What’s more, I experienced how this piece of children’s literature offers rewards to adults.

Perhaps it is the lessons about friendship that makes “Charlotte’s Web” such a beloved story.

No pig had truer friends, and he realized that friendship is one of the most satisfying things in the world.

So thinks Wilbur one day while contemplating his new-found fame thanks to Charlotte’s web-spinning prowess. Similarly, as children in school develop relationships with peers, they come to understand the importance of friendships and the need to value and hang on to their friends. This lesson may be all the more germane when children go for long periods not seeing their friends as they have since COVID-19 altered our world.

E. B. White artfully evokes the joy and sense of possibility children feel when they’re free of their parents’ gaze:

The children grabbed each other by the hand and danced off in the direction of the merry-go-round, toward the wonderful music and the wonderful adventure and the wonderful excitement, into the wonderful midway where there would be no parents to guard and guide them, and where they could be happy and free and do as they pleased.

Probably all of us can recall the first time we rode our bikes beyond our parents’ view, or we were with friends and no grown-ups present; it felt like the world, and all therein, was ours to behold. Here again, though, the pandemic has changed our lives and made it more difficult for children to venture out on their own.

White’s book resonates equally with adults by describing sentiments we experience as our children grow away from us.

Mrs. Arable stood quietly and watched them go. Then she sighed. Then she blew her nose. “Do you really think it’s all right?” she asked. “Well, they’ve got to grow up some time.?” said Mr. Arable. “And a fair is a good place to start, I guess.”

As parents, we can probably recall our heart’s tug as our children discovered their independence. We were happy for them, but a little sad for ourselves.

This past Tuesday, I joined the students to hear Ms. Cook read aloud from Chapter 3 in “Charlotte’s Web.” As good as it was reading the book on my own, it was even more pleasurable listening to Ms. Cook perform the voices of the different characters. Mr. and Mrs. Zuckerman, Lurvy, Wilbur, the geese, and other characters came alive, and we could almost see the farmers chasing the pig as if they were right in front of us. As with many other pieces of great literature, listening to E. B. White’s tale read by someone who so obviously loves it gave the book even more meaning than it had before.

“Charlotte’s Web” has been a classic for decades before there was a pandemic, and it will continue to be read and beloved after a vaccine is discovered and we have moved on. Nevertheless, the lessons it teaches may be all the more germane in a period when life can feel so precious.

“You have been my friend,” replied Charlotte. “That in itself is a tremendous thing. I wove my webs for you because I liked you. After all, what’s a life anyway? We’re born, we live a little while, we die. A spider’s life can’t help being something of a mess, with all this trapping and eating flies. By helping you, perhaps I was trying to lift up my life a trifle. Heaven knows anyone’s life can stand a little of that.”

In a time when we’re bombarded with so much sad news, this fable of friendship and sacrifice may be just what we need.

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