Aaron and I are just breaking the surface of chapter books: there are so many I want to read to him that I find the task of selecting "the perfect book" to be a little daunting. Up to this point, I've tried to pick ones with plenty of pictures scattered throughout, short enough that it won't take us years to finish, and with a plot-line that will intrigue a four-year-old. Charlotte's Web fit these requirements perfectly.
The story begins when Wilbur (a pig) is born the runt of the litter. He is about to be "done away with," but is rescued by the farmer's daughter, Fern. She raises him as a pet, and he is eventually moved to Uncle Homer's farm where he is visited regularly by Fern and enjoys sleeping on his warm manure pile and eating his tasty slops. Wilbur could almost be content except that he yearns for a friend. And that is when he meets Charlotte, a common grey spider, who befriends him and ultimately saves his life.
Some think that Charlotte's Web, while much-loved by adults, holds very little appeal for the modern child. And while I maybe read just a smidgen faster through some of the descriptions of lazy summer days and perfect dewy mornings, overall I didn't have to do much to hold Aaron's, and even two-year-old Maxwell's, interest.
I know some little girls who fall in love with the story because they idolize Fern, but I was gambling on Aaron's obsession with spiders to carry us through. And it worked. The parts where Charlotte is wrapping up a tasty insect for dinner or repairing her web using her spinnerets or guarding her masterpiece, the egg sac, were the parts where Aaron's attention was riveted. (One day, when we were well into the book, Aaron told me that Charlotte could catch daddy-long-legs in her web. "Daddy-long-legs? Surely not!" So to settle our dispute, I had to find the page and read back through the list of thirteen things to be trapped and eaten by Charlotte. Daddy-long-legs were on the list.)
Even though I am absolutely terrified of spiders in real life, in the safe confines of a book, I loved Charlotte...although I did better when I thought of her more in her mentor-role and less in her spider-role. She was kind and honest, and even though she loved Wilbur, she treated him in a very no-nonsense, unbiased kind of way. As I read to the boys, I enjoyed giving the characters different voices (I only do this in the comfort of my own home with my own non-judgmental children!!), and Charlotte's lines were my favorite to read aloud.
Besides Charlotte, Aaron was also interested in Avery (Fern's brother) and Templeton (the selfish, disgusting rat). There's a picture at the end of the book where Templeton is huge and obese because he has been gorging himself so regularly. Aaron loves that picture and insisted we show it to Mike when he got home.
One of the things that maybe escaped Aaron's notice but that I especially loved was the way death is explored in a very safe, but realistic, way. It's an interesting paradox that Charlotte spends the whole book trying to save Wilbur's life, but in the end, she herself grows old. So now, even though Wilbur's life is spared, his best friend dies, leaving him alone (at least for a time). It made me realize that wearing out our own lives in the service of others can bring a lot of joy and fulfillment. When we came to Charlotte's last words, my voice cracked; I couldn't help it. But Aaron was unmoved. He understood that she died, but I think he couldn't wrap his brain around the full ramifications of what that meant for Wilbur...or maybe he was just better at remembering that spiders can only live for a short time.
I was reading this book to the boys one afternoon while they finished eating lunch, and out of the corner of my eye, I saw a spider dash out from under the refrigerator. In an instant, all thoughts of my love for Charlotte vanished and I grabbed the nearest object to smash her distant cousin with. But just as quickly, he turned and fled back to his dark home, and I haven't seen him since (even though I made Mike move out the fridge and look for him). Perhaps he, too, was just enjoying the story of Charlotte and merely came out to thank me. What he didn't realize is that while I might be able to fall in love with a spider in a book, I can never ever do it in real life.