The children were sorely neglected yesterday. I packed and sorted and cleaned while they tried to entertain themselves. They kept sneaking down to watch television and the end, I was grateful that they had some kind of babysitter.
Finally, at about 8:30 last night, I started reading to them. We read a little Dr. Seuss and Mother Goose, and then inspired by one of the nursery rhymes, I went back up into our attic of packed books and pulled out Charlotte’s Web.
Deborah was immediately smitten by the book and cuddled close to me while Ricky kept getting up and wandering around. “Ricky,” I said. “Fern was eight years old. Do you know anybody that is eight years old?”
He turned around and smiled at me. “Jacob is eight,” he answered. When I asked Ricky what an ax was used for and then asked if he thought Mr. Arable ought to use the ax on a baby pig, Ricky voiced a powerful “No!” He also sat down.
One thing good writers do is help readers care about the characters. E.B. White does this so well by giving us Wilbur, a runt who is facing slaughter in the first page of the book. We haven’t even met him yet, but we are rooting for him because he is small and powerless. Children immediately empathize with Wilbur because they know better than anyone what it feels like to be small and powerless.
But White doesn’t stop there. What makes this story especially poignant is that a mere eight-year-old saves Wilbur. This little girl, Fern, argues that it’s unfair it is to kill a pig just because he is small, and when Fern’s father tells her she must control herself, she grabs the ax and tries to take it away from him.
Her sense of right empowers her, and even more surprising, her father actually listens to her. Wow. If that doesn’t strike a chord with children, I don’t know what would. While Wilbur is compelling because he embodies every child’s fears, Fern is more compelling because she embodies every child’s fantasies. What child doesn’t want to be listened to and understood? What child doesn’t want to be someone’s champion? What child doesn’t want to make a difference?
This scene empowers children and helps them understand that even children can change the world around them. Yes, the world can be harsh, arbitrary, and cruel, but children can take a stand and make the world a kinder place.
We are still in the first chapter, and White goes on to touch at another deep need of children–the need to nurture. Deborah kept asking me if she could have a baby pig and assured me that she would feed her pig with a bottle like Fern did. Children, especially little girls, seem born with a desire to nurture, to hold and to hug. After having four boys, I finally got Deborah, and she is my little nurturer. She comes to me and hugs me at the end of the day and offers to braid my hair when I am tired. The scene where Fern puts Wilbur in her little stroller with her dolls is so tender and yet so potent.
In a mere seven pages, White gives us an innocent who is about to die, a child that saves him, and a child that cares for him, and that my friends is why Charlotte’s Web is a classic.