“I’m just so nervous!” Ms. P., a second grade teacher, confided to me as she stopped by the library one morning. “We’re reading that part today!”
I knew exactly what “part” of Charlotte’s Web she was referring to – that part, dear readers, when Charlotte dies. Or as I often refer to it: that damn chapter 21.
I cannot remember the first time I heard or read Charlotte’s Web. My father had read The Trumpet of the Swan to me as a child. My fourth grade teacher had read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, with much gusto and expression. And by the time I got to college it was a vortex of Norton’s and Joyce and all the rest. But certainly not Charlotte’s Web.
So it wasn’t until last summer when I came to visit Charlotte again and in many ways, for the first time. The weather was unbearably hot. Too hot even for the pool. My two children and I sat piled together in the cool of the house and I began by reading that famous first line. We read Charlotte’s Web over the course of several days. My children sat, first here on the arm of the couch, then sprawled on the floor, sometimes with their heads in their hands, like Fern on her three-legged stool watching the goings-on in White’s beloved barn.
We came, at last, to chapter 21 and my voice wobbled. I cleared my throat, but it was too late. The tears came, so much so that I could barely continue.
“It’s the language!” Ms. P. told me the day after she had read that iconic chapter to her class. “The language is just so beautiful!”
We laughed as we shared that between her students and my children there was hardly a wet eye among them!
My own second and third graders patted my arm gently and asked, “Why are you crying, Mom?”. “The spider is dead!” I sobbed, realizing, even at that moment how ridiculous I must have sounded.
Ms. P. told me her students also looked at her sympathetically as she cried her way through those final, beautiful words, but handed her tissues as they begged her to read on.
Several days later, Ms. P. stopped by the library to show me the sympathy cards her students had made for Wilbur upon Charlotte’s death. One of the cards featured a picture of Wilbur, but this illustration was no ordinary stick figure drawing. I can only describe how the pig looked in one word: devastated. The picture was worth a thousand beautiful words. Ms. P. and I looked at each other, and we cried and smiled together at the power of language and the beauty of a child’s understanding.
Amy Blaine is a PK-5 librarian in Virginia. She tweets at @classicsixbooks