Category Archives: childhood favorites

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.  

Childhood Favorites Post #9 Stuart Little and an Ode to E.B. White’s Craft

After rereading both Charlotte’s Web and Stuart Little in recent months, my love for E.B. White has grown immensely.  I think that it is rare to find an adult writer who so richly describes the imaginary hopes of children: his details are so realistic that I come to believe that animals must indeed talk, that the Central Park boat pond is capable of squalls, that people can really befriend creatures.  While I was reading Stuart Little, I found that I couldn’t find the same depth as in Charlotte’s Web, but his literary attention to imaginary details made me really believe that this was a real story. Here are some favorites:

“…and the west wind (which had come halfway across America to get to Central Park) sang and whistled in the rigging and blew spray across the decks, stinging Stuart’s cheeks with tiny fragments of flying peanut shell tossed up from the foamy deep.”  I love how alive the wind seems–as though it were on an arduous journey to get to New York City at this exact moment. White goes on to create an entire ocean on the small pond and I can’t help but get caught up in it.

I also love White’s passion for the country, which can be heard in the sweet bird Margalo’s voice (and reminds of The Cricket in Times Square, sigh): “I come from the fields once tall with wheat, from pastures deep in fern and thistle; I come from vales of meadowsweet, and I love to whistle.”  White not only describes but creates an entire sense of place and person (well, bird). This kind of writing makes me want to write my own Ohio version of this sentence.

Stuart is incredibly endearing when he asks to the class he substitute teaches and E.B. White comes across as one of those adults who truly understands children and never lost his sense of wonder:
“How many of you know what’s important? Henry Rackmeyer, you tell us what’s important.” 
“A shaft of sunlight at the end of a dark afternoon, a note in music, and the way the back of a baby’s neck smells if it’s mother keeps it tidy.” 
“Correct. Those are important things. You forgot one thing, though. Mary Bendix, what did Henry Rackmeyer forget?” 
“He forgot ice cream with chocolate sauce on it.” 

Stuart Little is the kind of book that did not exactly carry me away the way that Charlotte’s Web did–the ending seems way to abrupt and we don’t find Margolo.  I remain wondering what happened to sweet Margolo and whether she was just White’s impetus to get Stuart out of the city and into a life of adventure, or whether the rumors I researched are true and he had a deadline he had to meet. Either way, I suppose I’m left thinking. But this was a story, for me, less of narrative perfection and more of an endearing escape and a reminder of sweet things that are far too often on the periphery of my mind.

Childhood Favorites Post #8 On Death and Love.

We started the Childhood Favorites Reread Unit and while I was running around my classroom talking with all the book clubs, I found myself saying that to the kids that it seemed like the author trusted his or her readers with some weighty material in many of the books.  I heard myself say this multiple times before I realized that 4 of the 8 books included death at the end: Charlotte’s WebBridge to Terabithia, Freak the Mighty, and The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe. It could be argued and interpreted that the same happens in The Giver.  My next questions were why are young adult authors tackling such heavy topics and why are these the books that kids love, return to and claim as favorites later?

A part of me thinks that the reader becomes so attached to the well developed characters, that when we lose them it is a deep cut to the heart.  The pattern I notice is that the characters we lose (Charlotte, Leslie, and Kevin) teach the reader so much about how to live life well, that it seems impossible that those left could ever move on.  And yet, we see the ones who are left (Wilbur, Jesse, Max) deliberately choose to live life differently because they had experienced such incredible friendship.  It is not that these characters have great fortune in the end, but it is as though they have been trusted with a great, deep secret that people who haven’t experienced loss often do not understand: there are things worth much more than any tangible object, amount of money could ever give us.  Love.

I think it is Edmund in The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe who demonstrates this the most–or, perhaps it is Aslan as my ultimate literary hero.  Edmund is less rounded than the other characters I’ve mentioned and his flaws are not endearing.  Unlike my immediate love for Jesse Aarons, I basically can’t stand the selfishness he displays for the majority of the story and have a hard time conjuring up any sympathy for his middle child antics. But. Aslan sees in Edmund what he can be (he later becomes, we find at the end of the story, Edmund the Just).  Aslan shows the ultimate form of love and sacrifices himself for Edmund–not something that I could ever do because Edmund seems so rotten.  But it is in that display of love that Edmund is rocked to the very core of his being, as I was as the reader.   (And, lucky for us, the deepest magic of Narnia brings Aslan back to life, more glorious than before. Thank goodness!)

All that to say, these authors trust my students–and me– with real life and true life and good life.  They aren’t afraid to put our hearts through the wringer a bit in the hopes that the story they have to tell will stay with for quite some time.  And they have.  All I can say to the book clubs happening over these stories in my classroom is that they hurt my heart in the best of ways.

Childhood Favorites Post #7: Utopias and Dystopias in Young Adult Lit, or trusting young readers with deep material

Another overlapping idea that I have found in my re-reading of childhood favorites is the concept of forming “utopias” in books with science fiction slants, The Giver by Lois Lowry and A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle.  Readers learn that the places that were designed to be easy and safe are actually disastrous.

In the world of The Giver, the community was designed to be “extraordinarily safe” and “meticulously ordered.”  Emotions are seen as dangerous, so at the onset of puberty, every citizen is given pills to keep the “stirrings” away.  Anything that wasn’t practical was done done away with: “the weather made transportation almost impossible at times. It wasn’t a practical thing, so it became obsolete when we went to Sameness.” The community operates out of the fear of mistakes, out of the fear of bearing pain, sorrow or inconvenience, and in turn sacrifices all of the good as well.  One person in the community, The Receiver, is chosen to hold all of the memories prior to Sameness: pain, color, love, choice.  The Receiver bears all of the knowledge and pain so that the rest of the community doesn’t have to.

In A Wrinkle in Time, the kids land on a planet called Camazotz to rescue their father.  They feel completely creeped out when everyone seems exactly the same.  Finally they meet IT, who explains:
“For you, as well as for the rest of all the happy, useful people on this planet, I, in my own strength, am willing to assume all the pain, all the responsibility, all the burdens of thought and decision.  I am peace and utter rest. I am freedom from all responsibility. To come in to me is the last difficult decision you need ever make.”  Charles Wallace attempts to fight IT, but loses and falls under the Camazotz spell as well: “Why do you think we have wars at home? Why do you think people get confused and unhappy? Because they all live in their own, separate, individual lives. I’ve been trying to explain to you in the simplest possible way that on Camazotz individuals have been done away with.  Camazotz is ONE mind. And that’s why everybody’s so happy and efficient. ”  Creepy!

I think that these books have content that is not only interesting for a reader of any age (most of my students read these titles in elementary school and loved them for separate reasons then), but that invites adolescent readers into some serious questions about the nature of life and the decisions that they have to make as 12-13 year olds. For example, despite the initial allure, relinquishing responsibility isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, and not worth the cost of what you lose.  Middle school is the time when you learn what it means to be more independent and responsible and it is a scary time. Also, these utopian/dystopian books celebrate individuality and I’ll be the first to say that in middle school all I wanted to do was to be like everyone else. These characters and conflicts can arm kids with courage.

Readers watch characters they love struggle with figuring life out and growing up right before their eyes.  Meg realizes:  “Maybe if you aren’t unhappy sometimes you don’t know how to be happy.” This is a really deep thought for an adolescent (or even pre-adolescent) reader, that I imagine can create amazing book club conversations and even intellectual arguments.  Books like The Giver and A Wrinkle in Time are ones that kids, if they are able to pick up on these threads, will walk away with not only an incredible read, but feeling smarter and feeling changed as a thinker.  Do you remember the first moments when you  realized the world is a lot bigger/deeper/more interesting than you ever thought possible? These books trust kids with intense issues…and I think that kids want to be entrusted; they want the adults in their lives to recognize the capability they have. Of course, different realizations will come at different times for different kids.  That is why I am so excited to hear what my 8th graders have to say about these books in the fall as they reread them.

Childhood Favorites Post #6: A Spiritual Journey with A Wrinkle in Time

“She keeps thinking she can say things in words,” (page 70).  This was one of the first quotations in A Wrinkle in Time that made connect in more than just a literary sense with what Madeleine L’Engle was up to while writing this book. There are a lot of different lenses that I try to teach my students to read literature through, and one of them is by making personal connections.  Mrs. Who’s quote I just shared reminded me of the “mystery” that is a part of my personal faith…the fact that there are some things that I cannot physically give name to, either for their beauty, glory, brokenness or depth.  Not long after this quote came many others that echoed my Christian faith and many verses from the old and new testament. That in turn led me to do research on L’Engle.  This is partly a record for me of some of the examples, and an attempt try to pull some of the threads together to think about author’s purpose. I’m looking forward to discussing this book as soon as someone would like to volunteer to read it!

One of the planets that the children land on is filled with creatures singing: “Sing unto the Lord a new song, and his praise from the end of the eath, ye that go down to the sea, and all that is therein; the isles, and the inhabitants thereof. Let the wilderness and the cities thereof lift their voice; let the inhabitants of the rock sing, let them shout from the top of the mountains. Let them give glory unto the Lord!” (Isaiah 42:10, page 77).

The universe is fighting the Black Thing and it hovers over the earth, that echoes biblical themes of spiritual warfare and the sense that something is amiss in our world. Mrs. Who and Charles Wallace discuss some of the strategy involved in fighting it:
“All through the universe it’s being fought, all through the cosmos, and my, but it’s a grand and exciting battle.” 
“Who have our fighters been?” 
“Oh, you must know them, dear. And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehend it not.” “Jesus!” Charles Wallave said. 
“Of course!” Mrs. Whatsit said. “Go on, Charles, love. There were others. All your great artists. They’ve been light for us to see by.” 
“Leonardo da Vinci? And Michaelangelo? And Shakespeare, and Bach! And Pasteur and Madame Curie and Einstein! And Schweitzer and Gandhi and Buddha and Beethoven and Rembrandt and Saint Francis!” (page 100-101). What I love here is that credit is given to artists and musicians and scientists that deepen the richness of the human experience and amplify the good and the beautiful, and are a microcosm of truth in themselves, much of what C.S. Lewis discusses in his essay The Weight of Glory.

“We were sent here for something. And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose,”  (page 190, Romans 8:28).

“Are you fighting the Black Thing?” Meg asked.  
“Oh, yes,” Aunt Beast replied. “In doing that we can never relax. We are called according to His purpose, and whom He calls, them He also justifies. Of course we have help, and without help it would be much more difficult.” 
“Who helps you?” Meg asked. 
“…Good helps us, the stars help us, perhaps what you would call light helps us, love helps us.”  I think that L’Engle’s theology here is incredibly refreshing.  In my own life I have enormous frustrations when Christians aren’t able to see glimpses of universal goodness and truth in all aspects of the world, and how all people who are doing good are moving the earth toward a better place.

“We look not at the things which are what you would call seen, but at the things which are not see. For the things which are seen are temporal.  But the things which are not seen are eternal,” (2 Corinthians 4:18, page 205) To read this in the context of the story, you would see that L’Engle uses her science-fiction imagination to give a name and space to that which we don’t know or understand.  Some of Christian theology’s biggest mysteries are revealed through that imagination in a way that enables the reader to grasp it in a more tangible way.

“Listen, Meg. Listen well. The foolishness of God is wiser than men; and the weakness of God is stronger than men…but God has chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise; and God hath chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty…” (page 222, 1 Cor 1:25).

So, here’s the bottom line for me as a public school English teacher who read this book and also happens to be a Christian: I love that anyone can read this and get lost in the adventure, be captured by the settings and relate to the inner struggles the characters face.  At the same time, my personal reading experience was enhanced by the way that L’Engle used adventure, story, art and science to amplify many of the truths of my faith and pushed me to think about them more deeply. I think it could also be an interesting angle for an adult reader of a different faith. Either way, reading A Wrinkle in Time was a win-win for me.