Welcome to a new series, My Reading Life, where I revisit the authors and novels that have shaped me into the reader I am today.
Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White
This week I’m going back, way back, to where it all began. I clearly remember when I was introduced to the treasure that is Charlotte’s Web. I was in grade four in a very small Catholic primary school in a very small rural Victorian town. This was the mid-80s and our school was still run by a Mother Superior and more than half of our teachers were nuns. My teacher, Sister Rose, had decided that she was going to read Charlotte’s Web out loud to us each day after lunch, but she would only read for about 20 minutes, no matter how much we all tried to wheedle her into reading for longer. My grade four self found this pace to be way too slow; it seemed that each time we were really getting into it, we had to stop. When faced with a whole weekend of not knowing what was going to happen next, I decided to ‘borrow’ Charlotte’s Web for the weekend so that I could read it all myself.
I just neglected to ask Sister Rose first.
I had planned to return it first thing Monday morning, to the exact place where it was always kept, but from God’s lips to her ears, Sister Rose knew I’d taken it possibly seconds after I’d slipped it into my reading folder. When she greeted me on Monday morning, instead of punishing me for taking the book without asking, she wanted to know how far through it I had progressed over the weekend. When I told her that I’d finished it, she asked me what my thoughts on it were. Of course I had loved it, and while I was half terrified of her and what she still might have had in store for me as punishment for taking the book without permission, I was also unable to resist answering her questions about it, because it was rare for me to have anyone to talk to about books. I was a bit of an anomaly in my family. At the end of our conversation, I apologised for taking the book without first asking, and then Sister Rose did something for me that no one else had ever done before: she gave me a book to keep. A brand new copy of Charlotte’s Web for myself. Nuns didn’t have much money, we all knew that. Learning about the life of a nun was a key part of our religious education (in the hopes that one of us might decide to eventually become one). Knowing that she had very little money of her own, yet she had still spent some of it on me, was a gesture I appreciated, even at the tender age of eight years old. Sister Rose might have been a bit scary at times, especially if you hadn’t memorised your times tables or you were slacking off with the morning star jumps, but from that moment on, she was my favourite teacher, and to this day I thank her for encouraging my reading instead of reprimanding my bad manners.
As soon as my own children were old enough, I began to read them Charlotte’s Web. My daughter was just the right age to enjoy the movie when they released the new version with Dakota Fanning as Fern and Julia Roberts as Charlotte, a gorgeous adaptation that I purchased on DVD as soon as it was available. Over the years, this has been played for all three of my children over and over, much to our mutual enjoyment.
First published in 1952, Charlotte’s Web is a novel that has stood the test of time. Its themes of friendship, loyalty, bravery, and love, are universal, appealing to both children and adults alike. Talking animals and spiders who can spell – the stuff of every child’s imagination brought to life on the page. Each and every time I’ve read Charlotte’s Web I’ve cried over Charlotte and rejoiced over Wilbur. It’s a novel I could never tire of and I hope one day to introduce it to my grandchildren if I’m ever blessed enough to have any. I can’t wait to see their little faces light up with awe when they hear about that first message Charlotte wove into her web:
And I can’t wait to hear their laughter over Templeton’s antics. I daresay I could go on about Charlotte’s Web for a very long time, but I’ll end it here in the same way E.B. White ended his marvellous story:
It was the best place to be, thought Wilbur, this warm delicious cellar, with the garrulous geese, the changing seasons, the heat of the sun, the passage of swallows, the nearness of rats, the sameness of sheep, the love of spiders, the smell of manure, and the glory of everything.
Wilbur never forgot Charlotte. Although he loved her children and grandchildren dearly, none of the new spiders ever quite took her place in his 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 – Charlotte’s Web, p.169-170.