New York Times  Bestselling Author

Salutations!

Charlotte's Web (paper-over-board)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.

7 Comments

  1. Margo on January 12, 2011 at 10:30 am

    My 4th grade teacher read CHARLOTTE’S WEB to us, 1 chapter per day and the same emotions were evoked in me…our
    Mrs. Benshoof had a gift of voice and portrayed each character as if they were the most important and unique creature ever written…my mother is a gifted storyteller too so I was lucky enough to have wonderful peers read to me with enthusiasm and passion…I am convinced that is why I have such a love for books.
    Diane, your books definitely create the same emotions and compassion and that’s why you’re my favorite author.

  2. brenda on January 12, 2011 at 11:33 am

    I read Dr. Seuss to my students at the end of each semester…before getting new students. THE PLACES YOU WILL GO, a book written (I am told) for high school kids…I almost sob out loud when I get to the end…I use my students’ names instead of those in the book. This week (although we are out for weather) is the end of the block schedule…new kids next week. I read it Monday…on Tuesday, they asked for it again. “Read the book, Mrs. ___”…one more time before we leave you for good (these are the seniors…) The impact is not as great on the other kids (juniors) and because I have had some of them 9, l0, and ll, they have heard it before. Some books stay with us forever. Charlotte’s Web is one of my favorites, and I have given it to my grandchildren. However, I agree with your brother…I was not ready for the death…

  3. Emilie Richards on January 14, 2011 at 10:16 am

    What a wonderful post, Diane.

  4. Diane Chamberlain on January 14, 2011 at 5:59 pm

    Thanks, Emilie. I bet you have some childhood books that inspired your writing as well.

    brenda, the Suess book is so wonderful for seniors with their lives ahead of them. My stepdaughter was the speaker at her graduation from art school and she read that book as part of her speech, complete with the tall red and white striped hat. Bill Cosby spoke after her and took the hat from her to wear during his own speech. So funny and kind of a thrill.

  5. brenda on January 14, 2011 at 7:18 pm

    Wow…how great…

  6. Rob on January 16, 2011 at 2:33 pm

    Salutations to you, Sis. As the little brother in your story I assure you that I remember that scene vividly. I can still see our mother’s face when I walked into the kitchen with tears pouring down.

    “What’s wrong?”
    “Charlotte DIED!”
    “Charlotte who?”
    “The SPIDER!”

    It is to her credit that she didn’t burst out laughing. She took it as seriously as it was – and as you said, it was my first tiny encounter with tragedy.

    Great writing, too.

    Rob

  7. Diane Chamberlain on January 16, 2011 at 9:01 pm

    Love you, Little Bro!

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