Saturday, February 9, 2013

Charlotte's Web: a tiny, humble hero

I have a lot of fictional female heroes and truth be told, many of them are from television: Tami Taylor, Leslie Knope, Liz Lemon, Brenda Leigh Johnson.  Of course others are from books like August Boatwright in The Secret Life of Bees, Hermione Granger in Harry Potter Anne Shirley in Anne of Green Gables.  This week I started taking a class called Literature for Older Children and we were assigned to read Charlotte's Web.  For a few years, the 8th grade curriculum included a unit on rereading childhood favorites, and Charlotte's Web was one of the texts, so I've become closely reacquainted with it--and what I believe is E.B. White's perfect writing style.  

Most of all, though, I truly love Charlotte and found a kindred spirit role model in the tiny protagonist.

She is quiet, fierce, unapologetic about who she is, and yet so kind.  She is a fellow introvert, not afraid to tell Wilbur when she is tired and needs to be alone.  I love White’s description of her on page 41, after she has shocked Wilbur with the description of her eating habits: “Underneath her rather bold and cruel exterior, she had a kind heart, and she was to prove loyal and true to the very end.” Sigh.  

What the teacher in me loved the most were the words that Charlotte spoke into Wilbur's existence that came true.  No one else saw Wilbur as radiant or humble or even as some pig--and yet those things become truth by story's end.  It reminded me of the power of words and the opportunity that adults have to speak good truth into a child's sense of self.  I will never forget a time early in my teaching career when a struggling student had an amazing piece of insight during our poetry unit and I just shouted without thinking: "Brilliant! Did everyone hear that? Brilliant!" In that moment I saw the student change: his posture, the look on his face--and as a 23 year old teacher I saw the power of words and encouragement at work.

Of course, in this story I mostly think about sacrificial love—Charlotte possessed the wisdom to know that she was not going to live as long as Wilbur, but she gave so much of herself and her time to prevent him from becoming Christmas dinner, and in turn, for him to see some of the true value in living.  When the reader leaves Wilbur at the end, he is far from the spring pig we met at the beginning:  “But you have saved me, Charlotte, and I would gladly give my life for you—I really would,” (164).  The way that he protects Charlotte's egg sac and loves her children is when we see that Charlotte's love has come full circle.

I hear White’s wisdom in the closing statements of “Last Day” on page 171: “Nobody, of the hundred of people that had visited the fair, knew that a grey spider had played the most important part of all.”  Sigh.  And then it’s so heart wrenching that “No one was with her when she died”—and yet, I feel confident knowing that she was strong and secure.   It never ceases to amaze me how much meaning can be packed into a children's book.  And as I look out on a snowy Brooklyn thinking about my upcoming move to not only a new apartment and new chapter of life, I believe I will finish my coffee and reflect a while on all that White had to say in the story about seasons.  Sigh.  

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