Thus (chillingly!) begins Charlotte’s Web, which I finished reading to the girls a few days ago. It was awesome — both the book itself, and the experience of reading it aloud to the girls.
I hadn’t read it since I was a kid, and it was a pleasure to rediscover as an adult (and as a writer, to boot). What a fantastic book! And how beautifully White uses the changing of the seasons, the birth of new animals, and the changing of Fern’s interests (i.e. away from farm animals and toward that dashing rogue, Henry Fussy) to underline the themes of the cycles of life, growing up, aging and dying.
Forgive me, I may just break into “Sunrise, Sunset” here; it’s been playing through my mind repeatedly as my girls have passed the five year mark. Which is maybe why I found the book itself and the act of reading it (our first successful lengthy chapter book experience!) particularly poignant.
I honestly wasn’t sure how it was going to go over. Although we’ve read a few short chapter books to the girls before — Magic Treehouse books, specifically, at YOUR suggestion! – it’s never been exactly smooth sailing. Sometimes they’re totally into it, other times they don’t have the attention span for it and just want a plain ole picture book. And Charlotte’s Web is far longer and subtler than anything we’d attempted before. I had to talk it up ahead of time in a major way to get the girls to give it a shot: There’s a little girl! Talking farm animals! An erudite spider! A gluttonous rat! What more could you want in a book?!
Then, I worried that the threat of Wilbur being turned into pork products (I mean, jeez, that opening line of the book!) would either upset the girls too much, or, worse, turn them into vegetarians. I have a hard enough time getting them to eat. I don’t need another challenge on that front.
(Disclaimer so as not to alienate my vegetarian readers: I’ve been making a conscious effort, over the last year or so, to make / serve / eat less meat. Disclaimer to disclaimer: I have not, however, made a conscious effort to make /serve / eat less bacon, because why would I do that to myself and those I love?)
But as it turns out, the girls were quite matter-of-fact about the whole “chopping Wilbur up so they can eat him” (Elsa’s words, not E.B. White’s) thing. They didn’t start demanding tofu at mealtimes instead of the….er…meat they don’t actually usually eat anyway because all they’ll eat is fucking pasta and bread!!
Oops. Sorry. I digress
They were also not terribly upset by the fact that — SPOILER ALERT!! — Charlotte died at the end. I mean, they thought it was sad. But they understood. (And were suitably happy when Charlotte’s babies arrived on the scene.)
No, what seemed to concern them most was the inconsistency of the illustrations. It troubled them that the goose on the cover (in full color) didn’t look the same as the goose in the illustrations inside. Or that Fern looked different in chapter two than she did in chapter six. So we had to discuss the cost of four-color vs. no-color printing, and the natural variance between different iterations of hand-drawn, non-licensed characters.
Actually, we discussed a lot of things — the meanings of many words (including “radiant” and “humble,” both of which Charlotte weaves into her web), why Fern was allowed to walk from her house to her uncle’s all by herself, and whether or not a spider could really catch a fish in a web, as Charlotte claimed her cousin did. I explained how animals win prizes at fairs, what it means to faint, and how the rope swing in the barn worked. (“That looks dangerous,” Clio said. “But they’re big kids, so it’s OK, right?”) I tried to explain what buttermilk was, and in doing so realized that I didn’t really know.
Honestly, the questions and discussions — though they make for a glacial pace of reading, and can be frustrating at times (especially for Elsa, who is eager to drive ahead, while Clio wants to talk and ask about everything) — are my favorite part of reading aloud to the girls lately.
I love hearing the gears turning in their little brains. I love discovering what they’re drawn to and fixated on — sometimes it’s exactly what I’ve been thinking about, or would have at their age. Other times, it’s completely unexpected and foreign to me.
I’m just so glad that we’ve gotten here.
I’m not sure what book is next on our list. Clio wants to start Charlotte’s Web over again from the beginning. I’d like to propose Little House in the Big Woods or maybe one of the Ramona books. We were also given a book of Isaac Bashevis Singer stories that I think the girls might dig. (Although they and I both like the ongoing narrative pull of a novel…)
What have you been reading to your kids lately? How’s it going?
Oh, and HAPPY NEW YEAR!