Wednesday, May 25, 2016

C is for Charlotte's Web

I was out for a walk a couple of weeks ago when at last I heard the final chapter of the Alexander Hamilton biography that had occupied my time and mind for three months. At a loss for what to listen to next, I punched play on another, shorter biography that I had downloaded two summers ago, the last time we were in Maine. It is the story of EB White's life, but the angle is clear in the title: The Story of Charlotte's Web: E.B.White's Eccentric Life in Nature and the Birth of an American Classic.

One of my favorite books when I was a kid was Charlotte's Web. I remember when my second grade teacher, Miss King, read it to our class. Everyone was in tears on the day we heard chapter 21, Last Day. 

As a student and a teacher of writing, I have come to recognize the magical simplicity of E.B. White's prose. My sixth graders often to look to their independent reading books to find examples of the crafts and tools of the professional. Once when we were studying figurative language, a student came to me with her copy of Charlotte's Web. "I can't find anything," she complained.

"Really?" I asked, and borrowed the book for a moment. She was right. White does not embellish his tale with comparisons. His description is solid, detailed, and real, grounding the reader in the timeless truth of the fantasy.

A few years ago I purchased the audio recording of E.B. White himself reading his most famous book. The story goes that it took all day and several takes in the studio until he could read the lines at the end of chapter 21 without breaking down. Even so, you can clearly hear the crack in his voice when he gets to that part of the story.

Well, you can if you're not crying too hard yourself.

When I first started teaching, I read Charlotte's Web to a first grade summer school class I was teaching, but most of the kids were unmoved when we came to Last Day. "Didn't you guys think that was sad?" I asked them, after covertly wiping a tear from my nose.

"What?" asked one little boy.

"When Charlotte died," I answered.

"What? Charlotte died?!" he repeated. Everyone seemed a little shocked. 

"Yeah," I said, and re-read the passage at the end of the chapter: 

She never moved again. Next day, as the Ferris wheel was being taken apart and the race horses were being loaded into vans and the entertainers were packing up their belongings and driving away in their trailers, Charlotte died. The Fair Grounds were soon deserted. The sheds and buildings were empty and forlorn. The infield was littered with bottles and trash. Nobody, of the hundreds of people that had visited the Fair, knew that a grey spider had played the most important part of all. No one was with her when she died.

He burst into tears, and soon the whole class was crying.

That's more like it, I thought.

Life Lesson:  “The crickets felt it was their duty to warn everybody that summertime cannot last for ever. Even on the most beautiful days in the whole year - the days when summer is changing into autumn - the crickets spread the rumour of sadness and change.” ~E.B. White, Charlotte's Web

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