Third-Graders in Love: Reading "Charlotte's Web" with my Children
“What book do you think is the Great American Novel?” I asked Diana Hardy, my 10th grade English teacher.
Ms. Hardy smiled. “Do you mean besides Charlotte’s Web?”
I thought she was joking, but she wasn’t. At 15, I had predictably fallen in love with The Great Gatsby, and memorized entire passages. Ms. Hardy made it clear she thought highly of Fitzgerald, but as she explained, “High school students aren’t ready yet to understand Charlotte’s Web as more than a children’s story. Still, there’s no question that White has no equal.”
As boys, my brother and I had had LPs of E.B. White himself reading Charlotte’s Web aloud; we had a turntable that could play several discs in a row, and for years, we fell asleep to the great one’s voice telling the story of Wilbur, Fern, and a small farming community transformed by a miracle. But Ms. Hardy was right – at 15, I wasn’t ready to hear that a simple story about a pig and a spider was “greater” than Gatsby or The Sun Also Rises or In Dubious Battle (my favorite Steinbeck).
In my middle-age, of course, I know Ms. Hardy was right. I haven’t read Fitzgerald in 25 years; I return to Charlotte’s Web again and again. Part of that is the pleasure in White’s prose; there’s a reason he would become as famous for the style guide he co-authored as for this one short novel. Part of that is because it is a book that teaches new things only when one is ready to learn them, and what I could not comprehend at eight or 15 or 33 is an epiphany in my mid-50s. But most of it is because Heloise and David loved the book when I read it to them, and their reactions to this gorgeous, heartbreaking story brought still more unexpected revelations.
When I first read it aloud to my kids, this seemingly innocuous description from the first chapter stunned the children:
The school bus honked from the road. "Run!" commanded Mrs. Arable, taking the pig from Fern and slipping a doughnut into her hand. Avery grabbed his gun and another doughnut.
“They had doughnuts for breakfast?” My daughter, having inherited a sweet tooth from her papa, was outraged to learn that there had ever been children so indulged.
“Boys could take guns to school?” David marveled, and I explained that it was probably “just an air rifle,” which led to immediate demands to be allowed to bring the same to class.
It took several minutes to calm them, and for days, they loudly bemoaned the injustice of being born to parents so mean-spirited as to deny that a Krispy Kreme constituted breakfast, and who did not make firearms as welcome as soccer balls and backpacks.
Later in the book, the children were wide-eyed when I read the instructions that eight-year-old Fern and her 10-year-old brother received from their parents at the county fair:
"Let's let the children go off by themselves," suggested Mr. Arable. "The Fair only comes once a year."
Mr. Arable gave Fern two quarters and two dimes. He gave Avery five dimes and four nickels. "Now run along!" he said. "And remember, the money has to last all day. Don't spend it all the first few minutes. And be back here at the truck at noontime so we can all have lunch together. And don't eat a lot of stuff that's going to make you sick to your stomachs." "And if you go in those swings," said Mrs. Arable, "you hang on tight! You hang on very tight. Hear me?" "And don't get lost! " said Mrs. Zuckerman. "And don't get dirty!" "Don't get overheated!" said their mother . .. Watch out for pickpockets!" cautioned their father. "And don't cross the race track when the horses are coming!" cried Mrs. Zuckerman.
The children grabbed each other by the hand and danced off in the direction of the merry-go-round, toward the wonderful music and the wonderful adventure and the wonderful excitement, into the wonderful midway where there would be no parents to guard them and guide them, and where they could be happy and free and do as they pleased.
I had to read that last sentence three times. Was there ever a time when children of eight and 10 could run off together onto a carnival midway, “happy and free?” Heloise considered the matter, and declared the Arable and Zuckerman adults to be reckless parents.
Fern and her brother at the fair, illustration by Garth Williams.
“Did people love their children less back then?” Heloise was struggling with cognitive dissonance, and needed to resist the seductive temptation to believe that every parent she knew was unreasonably paranoid. Better to decide that her own parents were sensibly cautious, unlike these unfeeling moms and dads who dispensed doughnuts and guns each morning, and sent vulnerable babes out to the slaughter of horses, pickpockets, and whatever still worse monsters might lurk at the county fair, waiting to pounce on the unchaperoned.
It was through my children’s eyes (and ears) that I discovered another theme in the book. At one point, Fern’s mother goes to see the family physician, Dr. Dorian; Mrs. Arable is worried that her daughter is spending far too much time with her animal friends. Dr. Dorian is the very picture of calm (probably the sort of doc untroubled by children with ready access to sugar and guns, a far cry from his anxious successors in the Academy of American Pediatrics). He reassures Mrs. Arable, and then, this exchange:
"How old is Fern?"
"She's eight." "
Well," said Dr. Dorian, "I think she will always love animals. But I doubt that she spends her entire life in Homer Zuckerman's barn cellar. How about boys? Does she know any boys?"
"She knows Henry Fussy," said Mrs. Arable brightly.
Dr. Dorian closed his eyes again and went into deep thought. "Henry Fussy," he mumbled. "Hmm. Remarkable. Well, I don't think you have anything to worry about. Let Fern associate with her friends in the barn if she wants to. I would say, offhand, that spiders and pigs were fully as interesting as Henry Fussy. Yet I predict that the day will come when even Henry will drop some chance remark that catches Fern's attention.”
It was Heloise, 10 at the time, who caught how normal it was to presume that even prepubescent children might have romantic interests. Modern middle-class childrearing, especially in progressive circles, is almost frantic to avoid anything that encourages compulsory heterosexuality. To the truly progressive mind, and to use everyone’s favorite epithet of 2022, Dr. Dorian and Mrs. Arable are “groomers,” presuming and even encouraging a particular romantic arc to an innocent child’s life.
“Did doctors back then ask whether eight-year-olds were interested in boys?” Heloise was nearly as surprised as she’d been about the damn doughnut.
They probably did, I said.
Henry Fussy does catch Fern’s attention just days later, at that famous county fair. They are both still eight, but:
Fern met her friend Henry Fussy, and he invited her to ride with him in the Ferris wheel. He even bought a ticket for her, so it didn't cost her anything. When Mrs. Arable happened to look up into the starry sky and saw her little daughter sitting with Henry Fussy and going higher and higher into the air, and saw how happy Fern looked, she just shook her head.
"My, my!" she said. "Henry Fussy. Think of that!"
Again, Heloise caught it in an instant: “She’s EIGHT and she went on a date! Henry paid! That’s a date!”
I agreed it certainly seemed to be so. Near the end of the book, we see that that “date” still galvanizes little Fern:
"Coasting is the most fun there is," said Avery.
"The most fun there is," retorted Fern, "is when the Ferris wheel stops and Henry and I are in the top car and Henry makes the car swing and we can see everything for miles and miles and miles."
"Goodness, are you still thinking about that ol' Ferris wheel?" said Avery in disgust. "The Fair was weeks and weeks ago."
"I think about it all the time," said Fern.
I read that aloud, and looked at my daughter. She stared at me with a gaze fierce enough to do the Ukrainians considerable good against Russian artillery.
I’m not an English teacher, and I’m not a good enough writer to even claim E.B. White as an influence. What I can say is that Charlotte’s Web is many things, one of which is perhaps the Great American Novel – and another is a remarkable reminder that our anxiety and franticness about our children is an unhappy and tiresome innovation. It is a new thing, and not a good one. This does not mean I intend to start taking my children to the Dunkin’ drive-through on the way to school, nor will either of them be toting a firearm to first period. It’s just a literary reminder that within living memory, parents loved their children as much as we love ours, and still came to radically different conclusions about what was safe, and what was developmentally appropriate.
In a modern novel, perhaps Fern would daydream about Helen Fussy, or decide that she should henceforth be known as Finn, a non-binary lover of barn animals. That would be fine, and I do not suggest those possibilities as a lament, or to mock lesbian or trans experience. At the same time, we can also remember that a great many of our children will – even with all possible options on the table – choose heterosexuality, and they may well choose it far earlier than we expect.
E.B. White isn’t a “groomer” for normalizing romance between third-graders on a Ferris Wheel, any more than he’s advocating for more Uvaldes and Sandy Hooks by depicting a boy taking a gun to school. He’s simply reminding us of a particular set of truths about boys and girls that once went unchallenged, and now are out of vogue, but that, despite changes in cultural norms, retain immense and awesome power.