Flying Lessons from Charlotte’s Web


Charlotte’s Web belongs in a very special class of literature. It’s a classic and not only does it appeal to children and young adults but also adults. I’m in my tenth year of teaching second grade. This means I have read E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web for a decade now and every year it just keeps getting better! It never fails to move me in a profound way. It is a touching story of true friendship that is so full of magic and wonderment! 

My favorite part…“Why did you do all this for me?” Wilbur asked. “I don’t deserve it. I’ve never done anything for you.” You have been my friend,” replied Charlotte. “That in itself is a tremendous thing. I wove my webs for you because I liked you. After all, what’s a life, anyway? We’re born, we live a little while, we die.”

Aww, Charlotte! She is giving, witty and honest providing projections about the reality of death in such a poetic and sweet way. It is the gentlest way to discuss and introduce death with a child. As soon as I read the chapter in which Charlotte died, many of my children wanted to share about an animal they had that died. Children are more connected to animals than adults I think. Or maybe it’s just that animals take a back seat in our lives once our children are born.

Children are capable of fully loving animals with no other tasks at hand. Children relate to the human characters and feel for the animal characters in Charlotte’s Web. On our last “reward day” my second graders watched the movie Homeward Bound. When the movie began they liked to assign themselves animal characters and tell everyone who they were pretending to be. I heard, “I’m Sassy, I’m Chance, and I’m Shadow!” I imagine when I read Charlotte’s Web the girls were pretending to be Fern strolling Wilbur next to their baby doll, and the boys pretending to be Avery carrying a frog in their pocket.

E.B. White knew children so well! When he wrote about the swing in Zuckerman’s barn (that was feared by mothers everywhere), he said, “Children almost always hang onto things tighter than their parents think they will.” I think White was saying children want to be treated with more trust and respect than we give them credit for.

One of my most favorite words ever is humble. This was Charlotte’s last word to write in her web to describe her friend Wilbur. I think telling someone they are humble (not proud or arrogant, modest, courteously respectful) is the greatest compliment you could ever give someone. It is so obvious to me that E. B. White was humble. And, I think his magnum opus (great work) was Charlotte’s Web.

Wilbur was one lucky pig, first to be saved by Fern and then Charlotte. I love how White wrote that no one ever quite took Charlotte’s place in Wilbur’s heart. She was in a class by herself. It is not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer. Charlotte was both.

E. B. White didn’t pontificate in his writing! When Mrs. Arable (the typical worrying mom, concerned that her daughter is spending too much time at the barn talking to animals) goes to see Dr. Dorian about Fern talking to animals, Dr. Dorian says, “How enchanting! I don’t understand everything, and I don’t intend to let it worry me.” This is honest even in today’s world in which we want and expect answers for everything immediately. I think White was saying relax and just be happy to be alive.

I can’t neglect to talk about one of my favorite characters,Templeton, the rat! The rat had no morals, no conscience, no scruples, no consideration, no decency, no milk of rodent kindness, no compunctions, no higher feeling, no friendliness, no anything. Templeton is gluttonous, sneaky, disgusting, and fascinating! If you’ve ever acted in anything you know how you always want to play the part of the evil/bad/villain character? Well, Templeton is that kind of complex character that you want to play and hear more about. When reading it to my second graders I loved getting into character and reading a snarly sounding voice. How perfect E. B. White chose a rat for Templeton!

When interviewed and asked, what are you saying to your readers? E. B. White replied, “Well, I never know. Writing to me is not an exercise in addressing readers, it is more as though I were talking to myself while shaving. All that I ever hope to say in books is that I love the world.” I do think White’s casual style is incredibly sincere and natural (just like the naturalist he was)! I think of our last book club book, The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate and I’m quite certain Jacqueline Kelly and E. B. White would like each other very much. They are both very much in tune with nature.

I’ve always loved Hemingway! It seems to me when I read anything by him, I feel as if I’m having a conversation with Hemingway. I feel this way about E. B. White too! He has a simple but endearing everyday feel with his words and takes you in with him. I become a character too, as the reader in the story.

I love to seek advice from authors for children on how to be better writers. Here’s what E. B. White said in advice to a young writer:

There is no trick to it. If you like to write and want to write, you write, no matter where you are or what else you are doing or whether anyone pays any heed. I must have written half a million words (mostly in my jo
urnal) before I had anything published, save for a couple of short items in St. Nicholas. If you want to write about feelings, about the end of summer, about growing, write about it. A great deal of writing is not “plotted”–most of my essays have no plot structure, they are a ramble in the woods, or a ramble in the basement of my mind. You ask, “Who cares?” Everybody cares. You say, “It’s been written before.” Everything has been written before.

In completing our Charlotte’s Web study, all of second grade released balloons to symbolize Charlotte’s babies who fly away at the end of the story. We attached a note to each balloon hoping to receive contact on where our balloons ended up. The path to adulthood for children can remind us of that with a balloon. We all want to do the best we can to influence both the path taken and the place of ultimate arrival. With the balloon, we may struggle with determining when, where, and under what conditions to turn loose of the streamer. With children, there is so much more that can be done to prepare for the time they are untethered. Not much in life is worthy of any greater effort. 

Happy landings!

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