Saturday I had the pleasure of babysitting my two grandsons. The six-year-old taught me how to play golf on the Wii while the four-year-old cheered us on. (I was not bad. I like this sports-in-the-living room concept. Then they let me ‘interview’ them to help me understand the four-year-old character in my work-in-progress. My favorite of their answers:
Q. “What are you afraid of?”
A. (from the six-year-old). “Nothing, because I’m in the middle age. When you’re little, you’re afraid of things, and when you’re over ten, you’re afraid of things, but when you’re in the middle age, you’re not afraid.”
Ah, I hope he continues to enjoy these worry-free years!
Then I read them two chapters from Charlotte’s Web, the book I gave the fearless middle-aged grandson for Christmas. Their mom had been reading it to them, so I began with the chapter where Wilbur meets Charlotte. Remember how she greeted him? “Salutations!” As I read, I felt myself starting to choke up. It was ridiculous. What is it about that little book that gets me in the solar plexus every time?
When I was in the first grade, my teacher read it to us, one chapter a day. With a school principal for a father, I was no stranger to books and was read to all the time. But Charlotte’s Web was no Little Red Hen. This story had three-dimensional characters (both human and animal), extremely high stakes (a beloved pig could end up as dinner), a love story (between best friends–the best kind of love story, even if one is a mammal and other an arachnid), a moral (stick up for your friends), and above all, heartbreak. I was mesmerized as our teacher read to us and I knew even then that I wanted to create stories that made people feel all the emotions I was feeling.
A few years later, my mother and I encouraged my younger brother to read Charlotte’s Web on his own. I distinctly remember him carrying the book into the kitchen when he’d finished, tears rolling down his cheeks and a look of betrayal on his face. “Charlotte died,” he said, as though asking us how we could have been so mean as to set him up for such an experience.
Maybe that’s what it is about Charlotte’s Web. If a child has led a safe and cushy existence up to that point, as my brother and I had, it could be the first realization that there is real pain in the world. There is loss and sacrifice and love and triumph–all heady and new emotions for a six-year-old. I believe that’s why those feelings stayed with me. When I read the word “salutations” to my grandsons and felt my throat close up, though, it was more than Charlotte’s story that was getting to me. It was the knowledge that this was the book that awakened a deeper part of myself and started me on my path as a writer so many decades ago. A path I feel so very fortunate to have taken.