maybe it was all the hours curled up on my patchwork quilt, pretending i had a fever so i could stay home to read instead of going to church. maybe it was the time travel. or the slipping quietly into someone else’s heart, someone’s secret hideaway. but the hold that children’s books had on me, has never lifted.
i tiptoe my fingers across the bookshelves, and feel the quickening in my heart. there’s miss rumphius, and her lupine seeds. there’s the secret garden, and orphaned mary lennox slipping into the secret locked garden of her uncle’s great house on the yorkshire moors. there’s the little house in the big woods, where laura ingalls wilder made me feel the icy morning cold and hunger for the prairie porridge. there’s tasha tudor, she who launched a thousand dreams and made me see the magic in a single tulip’s petal.
and then there’s charlotte and her web. and wilbur who ever breaks my heart and fills it up again.
so no wonder when the call went out from my sweet boy’s reading teacher for grownups to come to class, to bring along a book that they read and re-read in days gone by, i turned rather swiftly to a spider and a pig and a girl named fern whose cry for justice never has died down.
“where’s papa going with that ax?” said fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast.
“out to the hoghouse,” replied mrs. arable. “some pigs were born last night.”
“i don’t see why he needs an ax,” continued fern, who was only eight.
“well,” said her mother, “one of the pigs is a runt. it’s very small and weak, and it will never amount to anything. so your father has decided to do away with it.”
“do away with it?” shrieked fern. “you mean kill it? just because it’s smaller than the others?”
and so, with those four questions, fern leaped to the top of my hero’s heap.
and as kate diCamillo writes in the foreward to the 60th edition of e.b. white’s classic, “charlotte’s web,” the crux of its miracle is this: “within the confines of its pages , something terrible, something unbearable, happens. and yet, we bear this unbearable thing. and in the end, we even rejoice.”
later, diCamillo goes on: “it is also e.b. white’s promise to his reader: things will continue; life will go on. it will be beautiful, astonishing, heartbreaking. and as long as you keep your eyes and heart open to the wonder of it, as long as you love, it will be okay.”
talk about religion.
no wonder it is among the holiest acts to slide a charlotte’s web, a miss rumphius, a secret garden, into the hands of a child, one whose circles are just beginning to expand beyond the being fed, and tucked in at night, beyond the reminders to brush teeth, and the taping of bandages across skinned knees.
it is through the pages of a beautifully wrought, deeply inscribed book that a child slaps on her or his first explorer suit, and sets sail across rocky seas, and steps into tangled shadowed woods.
while that child might get lost in the depths of those pages, forget that he’s curled under the covers in his very own bedroom, with his very own baseball trophies lined across the sill, and his very own mama banging pots and pans down in the kitchen, the holy resurrection of reading is that the terrors and the unbearability and the broken hearts belong inside the pages. and in time, that child can shake it off, and tuck the whole heart-stretching exercise back between the covers. yet go forward, having held on tight through the tug and pull and breath-catching, and be just a squidge more ready to encounter the real-life bumps and hurricanes. or simply to understand those encountered by fellow travelers.
and isn’t that, in the end, the children’s gospel, and the scripture that carries them to mountain tops and certain shores?
because i’ve been enchanted all week with a particular spider and a pig, and scribbling madly in the margins, i thought i’d leave you with a few fine links for more reading. one, from the american museum of natural history, that tells the backstage tale of the curator in the museum’s department of insects and spiders on whom e.b. white heavily relied for scientific detail on the Aranea cavatica, the species of barn spider to which charlotte belonged.
the closing paragraph of that article is worth typing out here (bold-faced emphasis per moi):
The publisher, Harper & Brothers, had misgivings about the death of the heroine in what was essentially a children’s book but “on this point [White] refused to budge,” writes Sims in The Story of Charlotte’s Web. “Natural history could not be dodged: Charlotte’s species of spider dies after spinning its egg sac.” White’s choice stands the test of time. Charlotte’s Web is as popular and enduringly poignant as when Eudora Welty first described it in her 1952 review. “What the book is about,” Welty wrote, “is friendship on earth, affection and protection, adventure and miracle, life and death, trust and treachery, pleasure and pain, and the passing of time. As a piece of work it is just about perfect, and just about magical in the way it is done.”
and if you’re in the mood for a bit more reading about e.b. white and pigs, here is a marvelous piece by my dear friend betsy o’donovan, on why white’s essay “death of a pig” — inspiration for “charlotte’s web” — is such a magnificent piece of story craft. and as an added dose of russian-doll magic, the betsy link will link you straight to a re-reading of white’s class — and heart-wrenching — “death of a pig.”
be gentle to spiders and runt piglets this week. and cheer little girls — and boys — who speak out against axes and injustice.
with my first load of edits and revisions, and a truly tight calendar to complete the final manuscript and send it off to the copy editors’ desk, i am writing night and day over here, and thinking madly when fingers aren’t touching the keyboard. the next month will be a blur. but then the heaviest load will be behind me once again……
savor your reading, and do tell: what children’s classics were etched into the blank slate of your heart?