The Unreadable Sentence and Other Thoughts on Charlotte’s Web

Charlotte's WebNote: This post is full of spoilers. On the off chance you have never read Charlotte’s Web, stop everything and go read it, then come back.

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I just finished reading Charlotte’s Web aloud to my son, and was surprised how often I was choked up while reading it. I expected the final chapter to destroy me, but not so much in the middle chapters, even the quiet ones: Wilbur’s bucolic day-to-day existence and the charming banter of animals was as likely to make me swallow hard and take five (my son staring at me in confusion) as Wilbur learning his fate from the old sheep.

I think what gets to me is Charlotte’s and Wilbur’s platonic love. Maybe all great middle-grade books are essentially about friendship, but no friendship is more peculiar and perfect than Wilbur’s and Charlotte’s. All my childhood I waited for that little voice to whisper from the darkness that she was there for me, and would reveal herself in the morning.

But as I grow older, Charlotte is not the friend I aspire to have, but the friend I aspire to be. She reaches out to Wilbur when he is muddy and pathetic and hasn’t a friend in the world. Her friendship transforms Wilbur, just by holding up a mirror of her own admiration. Soon the whole barnyard is swept up by her enthusiasm. The old sheep and the geese and even the bratty lambs start treating Wilbur with more respect. In turn, Wilbur considers Charlotte’s myriad legs and plump gray body and bloodsucking lifestyle and pronounces her beautiful, an unshaken belief until the end.

It is Charlotte’s gesture of friendship upon which the entire book revolves. It is also the source of the inspiration for her own life-changing art.

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I was actually less weepy at the end than I expected, perhaps because the boy was so squirmy and distracting (while also steadfastly insisting I keep reading). He was so blank-faced when Charlotte died I had to make sure he understood what just happened (he did). He was impatient through the next passages, but delighted by the baby spiders, and so eager to announce we were finished he missed the lovely “true friend and good writer,” bit at the very end. It was hard to be emotional with such an impatient audience.

However, there is one sentence I was unable to read. I saw it, knew I couldn’t read it, and simply turned the page. It’s the last sentence in the second-to-last chapter, and may be the saddest line ever to appear in a book for children. I won’t even put it here. It’s no better typing it than reading it aloud.

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Perhaps the most curious aspect of Charlotte’s Web is that it never once mentions God, which leads to some confusion about the plot: why is Wilbur, and not Charlotte, the subject of praise and wonder? In an increasingly secular world, the disposition of rural folk to attribute the unknown to the hand of God is less and less obvious.

Mrs. Zuckerman more than once suggests that the spider is the real phenomenon, but her husband dismisses her. It’s just a plain old gray spider, he says. Mr. Zuckerman uses words like “wonder” and “miracle” to describe what happens, and consults his minister, who gives a sermon, but nobody uses the G word. I suspect that it is because White, or perhaps Ursula Nordstrom, felt that they were perilously close to mocking faith itself, or would be seen as doing so. They played it safe by alluding to miracles and wonders without naming their presumptive Source.

White was a skeptic, but a devout worshiper of nature, and his masterpiece is a statement of faith: we don’t need a celestial creator; the spider is miracle enough. White picks up the Emerson strand of enlightened animism that runs through the American canon (especially poetry). It’s a faith but not a religion, and captures my own faith better than any religious text.

The doctor serves as White’s mouthpiece, giving his lecture to Fern’s mother, in a scene I had completely forgotten and will probably forget again. (It has no children in it, and no animals. It made my son restless.)

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Charlotte’s Web is beloved by writers for its smooth rhythms and pastoral descriptions, its epic catalogs of the humdrum. Reading it aloud tuned my ears to its stylistic mastery. There’s a reason the award for best read-aloud books is named for White. The style subsumes the story at times, as White patiently reels off the signs of seasonal changes, for example, or gives an exhaustive, almost ostentatious, list of things to eat at a fair or the contents of a junk pile. A certain type of children’s book reviewer is inclined to say they are “too much for children,” these languorous passages, just as critics have opined since its publication that Charlotte’s Web is too sad for children, that the sadness is ill-matched with the humor, that White bungled by establishing Fern as a main character just to demote her in chapter three. White’s children’s books do have structural peculiarities, but so do Andersen’s fairy tales. They defy our critical apparatuses. Children gleefully read, love, and cry over the book anyway, decade after decade.

When authors appeal to all ages they are said to appeal to the childlike hearts of older readers, but I think White appeals to the old souls in children.

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Wilbur WritesCharlotte is also a writer, of sorts: literally spinning words that shine in the morning sunlight, transforming the lives of the ones she cares most about. And so I aspire to be a friend like Charlotte, and also a writer like Charlotte, with her tireless commitment to high-minded goals and no longing for personal reward. I more often feel like Wilbur, tying an old string to his tail and leaping off of a manure pile. Perhaps it is only by disappearing into the woodwork that a writer can see his or work work become, to those staring in wonder, divine.

On Spunky Girls

Ramona in rabbit earsGirls who have the audacity to be the heroes of books are likely to be labelled, or at least scrutinized, in two ways. In chapter books or middle-grade books, they will inevitably be described as “spunky,”and “feisty.” Those really are the two favorite words in the English language for describing the elementary-school protagonist. It is usually meant to flatter the hero and the book’s author, but it can also be used disparagingly. “Look,” a critic may say, presumably while rolling his eyes upward, “yet another girl child with personality.”

Spunky just means “courageous and determined,” while feisty means “lively, determined, and courageous.” And of course any book strong enough to get published will have a hero, you know, doing things and driving their own story line, and books for younger readers are likely to be bright and energetic, so there’s really no way to have a girl anchor a children’s book while being whatever the opposite of spunky and feisty is. Timid and passive? She’s going to have some moxie, is all, like any other character at the heart of a book, but other characters (except perhaps mice and the very old) will rarely be described using those two condescending words. They’ll be called courageous, or determined, or bold.

I would say a critical lens is narrowed by those two words. Once you’ve decided a girl hero is “spunky,” she becomes “yet another spunky heroine,” and you won’t see her in any other way. For example, Ramona, who inevitably bunny hops into any discussion of spunky, feisty heroines, is not especially “courageous” and in fact is often anxious about things, worried what others think of her, and unsure of herself. She is bright, curious, and inventive. She is occasionally brash. Neither spunky or feisty would be the adjectives that first come to mind, if I didn’t already have the idea in my head that she was a classic example of (even the reason for) a particular trend in children’s books.

I could take a sideways swipe here at the equally foolish trope of “strong girl heroines,” which I think means “has super powers, and/or a crossbow.” It’s another narrow lens. Many of the best girl protagonists from my childhood — Ramona, Harriet, Turtle, Fern — are not especially “strong,” but they are smart, resourceful, thoughtful, and perfectly good role models.  They are sometimes brave and sometimes vulnerable. They are human and complicated. I never needed any of them to be “strong” to care about them.

Just let these girls exist in their stories and accept them on their own terms. It’s all any kid really wants.

 

A realization

There’s a saying that is applied sometimes to writers: The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing. Some writers are always exploring new territory, and others keep to their small bit of ground and find endless wealth there. I have said, when this comes up (it does, it does), that I must be a fox, since I’ve written about baseball and snakes and robots and mushrooms, but I say so uneasily, feeling that I am really a hedgehog and that my own favorite writers are also hedgehogs. I have always felt affinity for the spiny little bug-eaters, and moreover, I feel like I am that sort of writer, but haven’t realized what my One Big Thing is. I feel, too, that there is something I’ve been trying to get at in my books and that the plot is almost a distraction, and that my One Big Thing had something to do with family or feelings or coming of age.

hedgehog

It was much on my mind since reading the Henry Huggins and Ramona Quimby books, and thinking about how Beverly Cleary knew her One Big Thing from the first chapter of her first book, when Henry finds a dog and wants to keep it. The discussion with his mother is about whether Henry is old enough to take care of a pet — he insists that he is, and sets up the entire series and its sequel series: they’re about kids who want to grow up, and  the glorious, terrible journey of growing up itself. It’s at the heart of every book. The kids are aching to be bigger, and Cleary lets that single theme guide her through fifteen books, as well as the non-Klickitat Street books with human characters. One thing I was left with after reading those books was admiration for Saint Beverly of Yamhill for knowing her purpose so well from the get go, for having such a noble one, and for being so faithful to it. Perhaps the only writer who cultivated less ground for as rich a career is Bill Watterson.

But I, like Shel Silverstein’s Pacman-shaped hero, was in search of my missing piece.

Yesterday at the playground my son ran off to the water fountain to fill a gatorade bottle he’d found with water; he wanted to make mud pies. He sprinted on ahead of me and reached the fountain, couldn’t reach to fill the bottle, and was helped by an older boy, maybe 9 or 10 years old. It was terrific, how naturally this kid helped a littler kid, and it killed me to see it. He must be a big brother, I thought.

And I realized right then, that’s what it is. That’s my one big thing. I want kids to be good to each other. I feel like kids need to look out for each other, that the adults can’t be trusted. The great sadness of childhood is that kids spend their energy harming one another instead of helping; the greatest joys of childhood come from kindness. It’s not a moral lesson, it’s a life lesson. It’s not how to be good, it’s how to be happy. Be good to each other.

My favorite scenes in my books are kids being kind to other kids (usually siblings). It tears me up when I see it done nicely in other books. Ten books into my career, several more in drafts of varying state of completion, and I can see how each one has, at its heart, kids caring…. for adults, for animals, but mostly other kids (especially siblings). I also see how some of the unpublished ones, the parts I can’t let go of, are of the same cloth. The manuscripts I can let go of, don’t have that.

Now I know what I want to talk about when I go on school visits, and how to answer the question: why do you write?

On “the way I was raised”

I generally don’t write about topical events because (a) everybody else is doing it, (b) those articles age badly, and (c) it feels like exploiting tragedy for page views. And yet the story about [famous person] who took a switch to his child has been on my mind since I first heard the news. I was a fan of [famous person] and am reeling from the details, but it affects me on a deeper level than other weekly outrages.

This is what I would tell [famous person], who asserts that he was raised this way and feels obliged to do the same, to raise his kids right.

I might as well come clean and tell you all that I once swatted my son twice on the bottom after he threw a toy monster truck at his mother’s face from point-blank range. She yelped, I swept him up and gave him two raps on the hind quarters. He cried and went to his room, and his mother went to console him. They soothed each other, the two victims of sudden violence, while I fumed outside the room in exile, feeling like a monster.

I haven’t done it since, but I’ve fancied plenty of times that a spanking would bring climax and denouement to a rough evening, that it would instill a feeling of reverential fear in my child, that it is at least worth a try after everything else had failed. I don’t follow through because I don’t want to relive that aftermath, the shame of having failed my wife and my child, to feel like a fugitive in my own family.

I didn’t get that many spankings as a kid. I remember one for playing with matches, and that wasn’t the only one, but I don’t remember what provoked the others. However, my brothers and I did live in constant fear of our father’s temper. We were like villagers in the valley beneath a volcano, treading and speaking lightly, watching for signs of a pending  eruption. When our father yelled, he yelled loud and long. We would have to stand, listening, shifting our weight from one foot to the other, and maintain a look of grim shame. I had a bad habit of realizing the absurd humor of my own predicament and smirking, which would make my father double-down in his torrent of verbal abuse.

I know I am not a better person for that experience. I did “turn out OK,” as so many advocates for spanking insist they have. Every day I try to ignore the knot of shame that experience gave me. I live with the nervous fear that people will yell at me, that I will be chastised, that I will have to stand there and take it and try not to smile.

And yet I know the ease with which we become our own fathers, the quickness to which “the way I was raised” becomes a defense for our own weak moments, when we let the shame and anger and fury control us. I have totally lost my cool, harangued my son, and been egged on to more rage when he giggled or smirked at my ludicrous behavior. I know the temptation to re-invent our weakness as strategy, to frame it as “discipline,” to summon up the wraiths of the anarchists and narcissists our children will become if we spare the rod or hard words.

Humans are storytellers, and our first stories are about ourselves. We learn to boast about our scars, make bad experiences into humorous anecdotes. We forget the hurt and replace it with sentimentality, take shame and replace it with dignity. We recast our parents as tough loving saints, who blinked back tears while they took us behind the mythic toolshed. We pretend there was no anger in their actions, and that our suffering made us into better men and women.

But it does not make us better parents, no matter how much we kid ourselves. “The way we were raised,” is not a sacred obligation to raise our own children the same way. Because we “turned out OK,” putting our broken selves back together with spit and optimism, does not mean we were raised right and need to keep up the family tradition.

We tell stories about ourselves, but we get to choose what our stories are and how they will guide us. We can romanticize the past and relive it, or reimagine the future and create it.

Homesick for Klickitat Street

When I was a kid there was no children’s writer bigger than Beverly Cleary. Everybody read her books, even the kids who didn’t read. And it was quite all right for boys to read the Ramona books because plenty of boys started with Henry Huggins and simply kept going as the series transitioned. Survey a class anywhere between second and sixth grade who their favorite writer was and half of them would say Beverly Cleary.

Yet, there was practically no merchandising. There were no toys or trapper keepers that I recall. I doubt there were midnight release parties. No movies were made from Cleary’s work until a few years ago, when Ramona and Beezus came out (reversing the names from the first book’s title, but loosely adapted from the entire series). There was a low-key Canadian TV series made of Ramona, but it was hardly a big attempt to cash in on a popular brand. Those were different days, pre-Harry-Potter and pre-Goosebumps, when children’s books were simply children’s books and not properties; readers were simply fans and didn’t comprise fandoms. Children’s books came out without much noise but had long lives. There was something dignified about writing children’s books but it was nobody’s get rich quick scheme.

I marvel that an author selling nearly a hundred million books would have left her reputation and her legacy largely in the body of her work, and that the publishers let her. Cleary says in her autobiography that she decided that she would never care about trends or money, so maybe there was pressure to do more and she declined, but the expectations of the public were also different. We let children’s books be children’s books back then.

Another thing I marvel at is that except for the whimsical Ralph S. Mouse series there is nothing high concept about Cleary’s work. They are simple books about realistic kids. The pitch, if there is one, was Cleary’s reputation for emotional honesty. Nobody needs to save the world, or even save Klickitat Street, but Cleary can make a crushed paper-bag owl feel like the end of the world. She’s funny, but she’s not off-the-wall talking burrito funny—her humor is character-centered and observational. There’s drama, but not melodrama—the cat dies, but not the mom.

Every year Beverly Cleary’s birthday is celebrated with growing reverence by the industry, partly due to her legacy and partly in wonder of her long life—she will be 99 on her next birthday—but there’s not much evidence the industry wants books like these anymore: books without a gimmick, that respect the minds of children, books that don’t do anything but get to the heart of the childhood experience. Books that are obviously for kids, and not geared to get buzzed up by bloggers and read by adults.

I meant this post be an appreciation for Cleary’s understanding of children, and how it serves me well as a father to re-read them, but the experience has made me sentimental. I keep tearing up, and I know it’s not just because of the way Cleary recalls the daily ups and downs of being a kid—which she does better than anyone, ever, I am sure—it is because I miss what children’s literature used to be. The hot market kid lit has become just isn’t the same world that welcomed me as a lonely ten year old in the child-sized shelves at the public library, and made me so happy I decided to spend the rest of my life there.

I’m homesick for Klickitat Street.

Some things I don’t want tell my son

Something I’m writing is from the point of view of a skeptical child… she has learned that adults say well-meaning but meaningless things, things that are meant to make themselves, not the child feel better. She gets this cynicism from me. But I wonder which of these I will inevitably tell my own son?

1. “Just be yourself”

This is kind of a crazy-making thing to tell a kid, isn’t it? Do kids know who they are, yet? Should they know who they are?

Byron, I hope you sort out who you are eventually, but you’re only going to find out who you are through fearless experimentation. Also, I am forty-six years old and I still don’t know who I am.

2. “Everything will be all right”

Kid, I don’t know that everything will be all right. I have a lot of concerns about the future — ours, yours, the world’s. Try to be brave and know you aren’t alone.

3. “You can do anything.”

The truth is that you can’t do anything. For example, with short parents you are probably not bound for the NBA. The good news is that you’re good at some things, and people tend to like doing the things they are good at. Also, the world is filled with interesting jobs that don’t make you rich and famous, but give you a happy and rewarding life. We’ll talk about your dreams and try to get you there and keep our minds open.

4. “A real friend wouldn’t make you __________.”

Ah, but friendship is so complicated, isn’t it? At some point a friend is going to ask you to do something, and it doesn’t make them a false friend or a terrible person. I hope you have the courage to say “no,” because it takes more courage to stand up to friends sometimes than it does to stand up to enemies. But when you do say no, you can say “I am still your friend.”

5. “These are the best years of your life”

My own childhood wasn’t that happy, and the last thing I needed to hear was that it would go downhill. Fortunately it didn’t. Every decade has been better than the one before it. In my 20s I got a career, in my 30s I got a house and met your mother, in my forties I fulfilled my dream of publishing and you came along. I hope you find that your life steadily improves as you get older and find your way in the world.

 

Book Decider Flowchart

Sometimes people ask if such-and-such a book (e.g., one of my books) is a “boy book,” and I assume the same question nags at them with other books, so I came up with this helpful graphic to decide if the book you’re looking at is for boys or for girls. (Click to see a larger copy.)