“Mommy, is Fern in all the Charlotte’s Webs?” It took me a few moments to process my 7-year-old’s question. We had just read the first two chapters of Charlotte’s Web, which I had grabbed from the library shelf in a huff, in reaction to her selection of yet another Pinkalicious book from one of those “I Can Read” series, which at this point is not exactly challenging.
“There are no Charlotte’s Webs,” I explained. “This is a really famous book, a classic, kids have been reading it for years and years.”
Charlotte’s Web was not a part of my childhood, in English or in translation. I first read E.B. White in college (The Elements of Style, still very much beloved, and a compilation of New Yorker stories, as writing to aspire to in Journalism classes). Yet, I knew exactly what the book was about. Friends, through the years, discussed how much they loved the book, hated the book, were traumatized by it. It was clearly a childhood milestone.
This was not the first time I considered getting Charlotte for my animal-loving, sensitive, 7-year-old. She is a child who feels things deeply, with abandon. We tried reading the first book in the Little House series, and she was so offended by the frequent descriptions of hunting that the book was returned to its box on the shelf (she had received the whole set for Chanukah), where it remains. She vows never to look at it again.
We took on Charlotte’s Web a chapter or two at a time. She was incredibly upset right off the bat when Wilbur’s life was at risk, then relaxed into the animal politicking in the barn. The writing is so clear and incisive, yet she did not see it coming. She was so happy that Wilbur was OK, she missed all the clear hints that Charlotte was the one who wasn’t going to make it to the end of the story. As we read the last chapter, I could see her eyes filling with tears. She held it in pretty well until the end, when she let out heart-breaking sobs, completely out of control.
“Why did you make me read this book? This is a horrible book,” she said, with a stuffy nose and blotchy face.
“The fact that you are feeling this so hard, it means that this is actually a good book. You know animals don’t really talk and plot, and spiders don’t write words on their webs, but you are still feeling something. This is how good books work, they make you believe,” I said.
“I don’t ever want to read a good book again,” she said. She will, of course, read good books, watch good movies, and feel.
The next morning, her little sister stomped out of her room screaming “Daddy, there is a spider in my room. Come kill it please!” I swear this actually happened.
You can imagine what happened next. My daughter dissolved into ugly sobs again. Her little sister was very confused, as my husband transported the spider safely to the backyard.
“I hate feeling like this, Mommy. Do you ever feel sad like this with any of your books?”
“Sometimes,” I said. The truth is, not so often, not anymore. Real life’s brutality has brought me to my knees in the last few years, and I have been either actively avoiding upsetting literature, or it has failed to upset me very thoroughly. I did not tell my girl that I prefer her sadness continues to come from fiction, stories made up by other people, and not the complexities of our own lives.