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A Tangled Web

Posted by Susan on February 10, 2010 at 12:00 AM in Chapter BooksClassics
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When should you read Charlotte's Web to your children?

It's a beautifully crafted book. The characters are vivid and easy for children to connect to. It's a wonderful combination of reality and fantasy. It does a "terrific" job of explaining friendship. Charlotte's Web.jpgIt's a perfect chapter-a-night book, the chapters aren't too long and there are enough pictures to keep a child's interest. Also, a surprising number of the chapters end with a description of someone going to sleep, which makes it a great book to read at bedtime.

But, but but... Charlotte dies at the end. There's no way to get around that fact or sugarcoat it. You can explain to your children that death is part of the natural cycle of things and that Charlotte's children live on. No matter what you say, though, I guarantee your kids will be sad at the end of the book. I know I am every time I read it.

Many people read Charlotte's Web as a first read aloud. As a librarian, I frequently get asked what age the book is appropriate for. My answer is always that it depends on your child. Will they be able to handle it?

I recently asked myself this same question when I was deciding whether I should read it to my son. Stuart Little and My Father's Dragon had both been big hits for him. Was he ready for Charlotte's Web?

We talked about it for a while. He loved the cover and wanted to see more. I let him look through the book, taking in the pictures. I asked if he wanted to read the book, even if something very, very sad happens in it. He said yes... and we plunged ahead.

Reading Charlotte's WebIt was a wonderful experience. He savored each chapter and always begged for another one when we were done reading. He adored the goose, goose, goose and the gander, gander, gander. He fell wholeheartedly in love with Wilbur. He was studying spiders in his science class and he soaked in all the facts about spiders presented in the book. Since he was on the cusp of learning to read, he was delighted to learn how to spell "pig" and "Charlotte" and then find those words throughout the book.

Then came Chapter 21: The Last Day. You know the one. It ends like this:

"Next day, as the Ferris wheel was being taken apart and the race horses were being loaded into vans and the entertainers were packing up their belongings and driving away in their trailers, Charlotte died. The Fair Grounds were soon deserted. The sheds and buildings were empty and forlorn. The infield was littered with bottles and trash. Nobody, of the hundreds of people that had visited the Fair, knew that a grey spider had played the most important part of all. No one was with her when she died." (Excerpt from Charlotte's Web by E.B. White)

Before we read the chapter, we talked about the fact that there was something really sad about Charlotte was coming up. I told him that she was going to die and asked him if he still wanted me to read it. He said yes, and he snuggled into my lap and I held him very tight while we read the paragraph above. And then we both cried and talked about it. But then we moved onto Chapter 22 where we met Charlotte's children... and there was hope in the story again. And we were both okay again.

I asked him recently about the book (we read it a few months ago). He said it was one of his favorite books and he loved it. I'm planning to read it together again in a year or two.

eb-white-award-final-emboss.gifJen mentioned that there is now an award in honor of E.B. White. Did you know that the Association of Booksellers for Children sponsors the E.B. White Read Aloud Awards each year?

When did you read Charlotte's Web to your children? Would you do it again at that age level? Did you decide not to read the book to their kids? When did they read it to themselves? When did you read it to yourself? What was their reaction? What was yours?

I'd love to hear about your experiences with this timeless classic.


madelyn writes...

I had planned to hold off on C.W. because I have two sensitive kids, but when my son was in first grade, his teacher started reading it to the class as a read-aloud. We decided to read ahead -- in part so he'd be able to handle Charlotte's death when his teacher got to it, but mostly because I wanted to be the one to read Charlotte's Web to my kids! We read it in one marathon reading. At the end of the day my voice was hoarse. We all cried but my son handled it better than I thought (similar experience reading Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH). My daughter, who was 4 at the time, was NOT ready for it, however. Unfortunately our reading-in-self-defense, good experience for him, ended up being a disaster for her.

Kathy writes...

I'm holding off on CW for a while. Just a few days ago, my 4 year old son burst into mournful wailing tears as we read "The Best Nest" -- he, like Mr. Bird, truly believed that Mrs. Bird was gone forever, and that devastated him.

Julie writes...

I read it to my daughter when she was 4. It was her first chapter book and she handled it very well. She loved it, in fact. With my son (who is now 4), I'll probably wait another year. Every child handles emotions differently, and some are ready for challenging stories earlier.

I will say, however, that I do believe there is plenty of love, hope and beauty in the book. It is sad when Charlotte dies, but she leaves behind an amazing legacy. I use the book not only to talk about the cycle of life and death, but the importance of living to the fullest. Great themes of friendship, overcoming hardship, etc. Of course I could go on and on, but I'll stop now. :-)

dundeewriter writes...

I read Charlotte's Web when I was in second grade, so about 7 years old. My parents bought me a copy when they went to parent-teacher conferences/book fair at my school. It was completely out of the blue. I don't know if my teacher recommended it to them for me or what.

Anyway, I know I was sad, but I think I was at the right age to handle it. I've always cherished that book and still have it.

Kathryn writes...

CW was the very first chapter book my dad ever bought for me. The pages are yellow and brittle and the binding if falling apart. But when I bought myself a new copy of it, I couldn't bring myself to replace the old one. The library got the new copy instead.

adrienne writes...

I read Charlotte's Web myself when I was about nine or ten, although I knew the story from the film. I was sad about Charlotte's death, of course, but I think in the end it's a very hopeful story.

Terry D writes...

I have been struggling with this question vis-a-vis my second grader. I remember having it read aloud in third grade and watching an in-classroom film about it. It was one of my favorite memories of that year. I think my 8YO would love the story, but she is SO sensitive and worries about things dying so much that I just don't know.

B writes...

My son and daughter had to learn how to deal with a death in the family at an early age. They were 5 and 3 when their baby cousin died from a undetected congenital heart defect. Since then, they've had questions about death and why it happens. Though it's never an easy question to answer, reading books like Charlotte's Web helped cope with the difficult subject of death (and it's reality in everyone's lives).

Susan writes...

My kids' elementary school uses it as a read-aloud in the 2nd grade. Both my son and daughter heard it that way. It didn't seem to be a big deal for either of them though they both enjoyed the book.

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