I have a confession to make. When I was growing up, I didn’t read all the required children’s literature. I read. Not like my sister read or some of my cousins who were reading Watership Down and Clan of the Cave Bear, but I sought refuge in Judy Blume’s Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing. If something made me laugh, I could read it over and over again. My mother encouraged my sister to put me onto The Bobbsey Twins, which by page three were so sweet I had a stomachache. Our classroom reader included an excerpt from Little House on the Prairie, but after we discussed gathering cow chips for fuel and facing an unforgiving winter without insulation, I couldn’t be less interested. It’s no wonder I turned my nose up at Charlotte’s Web.
In high school, an autistic boy matriculated from another middle school in the area, and he was able to quote long passages from any point in the book if you told him where to start. I was curious, but would never have asked him to begin, but I heard he could go all the way to the end of the book without stopping if you let him. I wouldn’t ask, but when I overheard someone say, “Start on page 23,” I got a closer look as he gazed into space, seemingly forgetting that any of us were standing there and began: “Wilbur didn’t care. The food smelled appetizing. He took another step toward the pail…”
He continued for at least five minutes, doing all the voices of the different characters as he imagined them, and then the bell rang for the lunch-hour was over. I was 14, and it hit me that I was probably too old to read a children’s book, but on the other hand, I felt I hadn’t missed anything since the book, named for a spider, was about a pig named Wilbur who seemed bewildered by everything that happened to him. We had a few students who raised pigs, and I didn’t find them very stimulating, and though I might’ve been interested in a spider, if the story wasn’t about her, I’d not risk appearing childish by checking the book out of the school library. If ever I were curious, I knew where I could find the person to recite the whole thing beginning to end.
Sometimes we’re simply not ready for something. As someone who collects cookbooks and watches cooking shows, I’ll see an episode about some unusual creation, and later discover that I’ve had the recipe in an old book for the past 30 years, but I’d never stopped to read it through. In some cases, I’d never heard of the thing, but suddenly realized I’d had the information all along if only I’d bothered to look. It simply wasn’t my time to see that particular article.
There are films, or scenes from films, which I never fully understood, but one day I happen to learn something that makes everything clear. And so it was with Charlotte and her web.
I never owned a copy of E.B. White’s classic, so imagine my surprise when I recently cleaned and organized the garage months after our arrival. The library is one of those things I tend to pack early on during a move. I want every book to make it to the new place undamaged, and I take that time to inventory. Gary, on the other hand, doesn’t worry over books as much as I, and he had a couple of them placed in a box within a box after they’d escaped my attention. While trying to figure out what was in that row of unopened boxes, I peeked in and there was his copy of Charlotte’s Web.
A good friend had given me the rare privilege of sharing his latest manuscript, which happens to include characters from classic literature, and I felt chastened about having avoided certain works over the years without giving them a proper chance. As soon as I finished his book, I picked up this mysterious gift and began to read.
Chapter One: “Where’s Papa going with that ax?” Within four lines, we know that “some pigs were born last night” and that’s all it took to rope me in. I still believe that had I started reading Charlotte’s Web in elementary school, I would’ve hated it. I could not be entertained with stories of farm animals, county fairs, cunning spiders and Fern’s simple life when I longed to move to a big city and take advantage of what was offered.
However, now that we live outside the hustle and bustle of a city, and we experience all four seasons, I’m continually watching the changes. I see more than the spring growth and reemergence of nature. I’m reminded of the cycle of the year, and how that vibrant green will deepen into mature foliage before it changes color and falls to its death. I check for last frost dates, get the garden growing and watch when a nearby family puts out the sign to announce their farm is open for picking blueberries.
E.B. White did much more than write about an anxious pig that found a cunning and unlikely friend in a spider. Rather, he described nature at all stages, and pointed out its rhythms. The hatching of goslings to preparing for the county fair, I couldn’t think of a thing he failed to include. Thanks to having finally read about Charlotte, I’m even observing spiders with greater interest. And I have to admit, hardened with age and cynicism, I responded to Charlotte’s fate as the author intended.
© 2016 by Patrick Brown
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