Charlotte’s Web is one of those children’s books that grown-ups have strong memories of. When I told some friends that it had turned up on my son’s third-grade reading list, their eyes welled up. "What a great thing to read with your kid," they said.
Except — and here’s a confession to mobilize the perfect-mother police — I didn’t experience much pleasure at reading aloud, either as a parent or as a kid. I have only one memory of reading with my parents. It was the summer before first grade, and my father, who was, to put it mildly, not a "get down on the floor with the kids" type of dad, sat with me on the back steps of our house and taught me to read. I can just picture him with his knees practically under his chin, having me sound out words: "’See Jane run.’ Now you say it."
What I don’t remember — or didn’t have — are the kinds of experiences other people wax rhapsodic about, like rainy afternoons huddled under blankets with Mom, hearing her act out the different characters in books about Alice and Dorothy and Stuart. In fact, I don’t have a lot of memories of so-called children’s books at all. I must have read The Wizard of Oz and Stuart Little — and Charlotte’s Web, for that matter — but whatever association I have with them comes from the movies. (Pippi Longstocking is another story: I loved the series and can still see the Astrid Lindgren books lined up on my pink-flowered bedroom shelves.)
And now, in a cruel twist of fate, I’m seeing the same attitude in Charley. Books don’t call to him. And through most of his first seven years, our nightly read-aloud ritual has been more chore than joy. Am I the only mom who found The Runaway Bunny repetitive and tiresome? Who regularly skipped the middle sections of those interminable Budgie books, until Charley, then about 4, began to notice and call me on it? As for Harry Potter, by the fourth book, I was hoping somebody would put a spell on me.
Obviously, I have complicated feelings about this. On the one hand, I managed to become a reasonably sane adult who loves reading without the aforementioned beautiful childhood read-aloud experiences, so it’s possible that Charley might too. On the other hand, like many parents, I feel a pull to right the (perceived) wrongs of my own growing up.
So Charlotte’s Web provided an opportunity for us both. He had to read by himself, so I said we’d establish our own, different kind of ritual. We’d be a tag team: He’d read a chapter, I’d read it after him, and then we’d discuss it.
The first night, his reaction to chapter 1 was "I don’t like it, Mom. It’s about a girl and a pig. Who cares?"
Oh, boy, I thought, here we go: another generation of Nelson readers shunning beloved childhood classics. "Read a little more," I said, hopefully.
The next three nights weren’t much better, but then, in chapter 5, Charlotte appeared — and a miracle occurred. "Can we read two chapters tonight?" Charley asked, responding to Wilbur’s first impression of the spider. "Charlotte is fierce, brutal, scheming, bloodthirsty — everything I don’t like," the author, E.B. White, has Wilbur think. But then White explains, "Wilbur was merely suffering the doubts and fears that often go with finding a new friend."
"Sure," I said. "How come?"
"I like this book now. The animals are like people, Mom," he said, with the unspoken "Du-uh" even elementary schoolers have perfected. "They’re like kids I know."
For the next few nights, we talked about Templeton, Wilbur, Charlotte, the goose, and the gander. When his reading form asked him to name the "most interesting" character, he didn’t hesitate. "I pick Templeton," the gluttonous rat, he told me. Why? "Because he reminds me of R," he answered, naming a kid with whom he’d had his first love/hate relationship. "He’s funny, but he’s mean too. He only cares about himself."
When we got to the next-to-last chapter, in which Charlotte dies, Charley said, "You know what makes me really sad about this? This line: ‘No one was with her when she died.’" He waited a beat and then asked, "Was Poppop alone when he died?"
If it hadn’t occurred to me before, it did now: Even a child wants to read about what he knows, to have his own world explicated for him. And if a book is good enough, the venue and the biological classification of the characters don’t matter much. This, of course, is why Charlotte’s Web is a classic: It’s not just about "a girl and a pig" or life on a farm. As Eudora Welty wrote in the New York Times Book Review in 1952, it’s about "friendship on earth, affection and protection, adventure and miracle, life and death, trust and treachery, pleasure and pain and the passing of time."
"So who was your favorite character, Mom?" Charley asked.
"I think Charlotte," I said.
"That figures," he replied. "She’s sort of like you."
I’d hoped he’d say that. I secretly thought of myself as Charlotte, especially when I read White’s epitaph for her: "It is not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer. Charlotte was both." Did my son believe these things about me?
"Yeah? Why do you think so?" I was fishing.
"Well," he said seriously, "she’s a girl, but she’s still sort of nice. And also, she’s really, really bossy."
Finally, we’ve both got a Charlotte’s Web memory to wax rhapsodic about. Excerpted from So Many Books, So Little Time: A Year of Passionate Reading, by Sara Nelson. To be published this month by Putnam.