Our Time in the Barn: Reading ‘Charlotte’s Web’ with My Daughter

Spring has been falling all week in a mystic drizzle. All I can say is: huzzah. What a hard Midwestern winter it’s been. We hunkered down in our house—myself, my wife, our four-year-old daughter and infant son, an ailing spaniel that can hardly walk—and read E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web over and over. And over. And over. In fact, this winter I read Charlotte’s Web dozens of times. I read it to my daughter every night before bed and then again over breakfast and sometimes lunch. If that seems like obsessive behavior to you, then (a) you’re right, and (b) you probably aren’t the parent of a young child.

Not that I’m complaining. I would rather read Charlotte’s Web for the thousandth time than “make a milkshake” by putting imaginary ingredients in an invisible blender while my daughter goes to the potty, or pretend she is a cow that has to be milked and then let out to pasture, or be instructed to “talk about the egg” she has become by curling up into a ball on the floor. (There is a kitten in the egg. Its tail and whiskers are rainbows.) At least Charlotte’s Web is not mindless, no matter how many times we read it.

My wife, who is Jewish—and who refuses to read the book anymore—jokingly referred to our cyclical reading of Charlotte’s Web as “Simchat Torah,” a reference to the Jewish holiday that accompanies the completion of the annual Torah reading cycle. Each week at every synagogue in the world a section of the Torah is read aloud. Every synagogue reads the same 54 sections in the same order. In the last week, the book is finished—and immediately begun again. Simchat Torah celebrates that cycle and the way the Torah gives structure and meaning to people’s lives. So, it was with Charlotte’s Web. As soon as I read the last paragraph and closed the book, always with great ceremony, my daughter would insist that we go back to the beginning. In this and other ways reading Charlotte’s Web became a ritual. We were marking something. One phase of childhood was ending, another just beginning.

My daughter is four and, believe it or not, everything is starting to change. She’s learning to read. She spends more time looking in the mirror, making faces, taking her glasses off and putting them on and taking them off again to see which look she prefers. Her afternoons are filling up with lessons—swimming, ice skating, soon ballet and gymnastics—instead of the free play she’s used to. Kindergarten starts next year. Play dates loom.

At the heart of Charlotte’s Web are two subjects about which my four year old is intensely curious: friendship and death. Charlotte (the spider) and Wilbur (the pig) are each other’s first and best friends. They ease each other’s loneliness, on rainy days, especially. They play. Charlotte tells Wilbur stories and sings to him. By writing the words “some pig,” “terrific,” “radiant,” and “humble” in her web, Charlotte saves Wilbur’s life, convincing Homer Zuckerman that Wilbur is extraordinary, a miracle, and so should not be slaughtered for smoked bacon and ham.

As for what Wilbur does for Charlotte, well, that’s a little harder to parse. Wilbur himself asks about it near the end of Charlotte’s life. “‘Why did you do all this for me?,’ he asked. ‘I don’t deserve it. I’ve never done anything for you.’ ‘‘You have been my friend.’ replied Charlotte. ‘That in itself is a tremendous thing.’” It is, isn’t it? They lift up each other’s lives—that’s how Charlotte puts it. Friendship teaches them that they are capable of love. Will my daughter find such a friend in her kindergarten class? Until this winter, her only real friend was her doll, New Baby, but the times they are a changin’. Last week I watched her skate around the ice rink with a girl whose helmet she admired. (It had a unicorn horn.) She was smiling the whole time.

Death is Charlotte’s Web’s other great subject and, as I said, a topic of some fascination for my daughter. The cemetery we pass on our way home from school never fails to bring up new questions, which range from the logistical (Does the body go up and down or side-to-side?) to the existential (Does life get sillier and sillier and then we die?) to the just plain weird (Do we all die in the same hole?). My answers (side-to-side, no, no…but also yes?) never satisfy either of us. I don’t know what’s behind her questions, whether fear, anxiety, simple curiosity. Is she grasping after her own finitude? Maybe. Is the world made strange when she sees those headstones from the road? Not sure. I guess we both have our questions. We both want to understand something that is essentially unknowable.

My daughter wept the first couple times we read about Charlotte’s death, which happens in the last paragraph of the next-to-last chapter. So did my wife. (Whenever my wife cries during reading, which happens not infrequently, my daughter insists on tasting her tears.) Since those initial traumas, my daughter hasn’t let us get close to that paragraph, requesting that we skip it many chapters in advance. In Charlotte’s Web death is wrenching. White ends that last paragraph: “No one was with her when she died.” It’s inevitable. Not just inevitable, though: necessary. Death, weirdly, gives the world shape and meaning.

There is a discernible order to things in Charlotte’s Web. Three times a day, the hired man Lurvy walks down to the barn with food for Wilbur. Goslings hatch every spring. In early summer the birds come out and start singing (“everywhere love and songs and nests and eggs”). In early fall, spiders lay their egg sacs full of baby spiders—514 of them for Charlotte—and then die. In late fall, the squashes and pumpkins are brought into the barn to protect them from frost. Time exists and brings change, but change makes the world beautiful.

The book takes place over the course of a year, shaped by the seasons of both nature and human life. Fern, the eight-year-old girl whose native sense of justice saves Wilbur from an untimely death—and from whose perspective we witness all the goings-on among the animals—grows up by the end of the book, drawn finally away from the simple world of the barn by a boy her age named Henry Fussy. In the first chapter Fern is nursing Wilbur with a bottle. In the last she’s absent. White treats this change with characteristic equanimity and humor. “She was growing up,” White writes, “and was careful to avoid childish things, like sitting on a milk stool near a pigpen.”

My daughter is not there yet—she would happily sit on a milk stool near a pigpen—but she is growing up. The world is coming into focus, big with possibility, vertiginous and changeable. Reading Charlotte’s Web on repeat was a comfort in the face of these changes, for both of us. It was a way to process the loss of what was, the anticipation of what will be. Sitting together at the end of the day, me propped against the side of her bed, her under the covers, the two of us making a T, we said goodbye to our own time in the barn (that kitten, those rainbows), even as we looked ahead to what’s next.

“Who wants to live forever?” Templeton (the rat) asks in the last chapter. He’s right, but I hate how carelessly he says it. Charlotte is gone. Fern has moved on. Fall passes. Winter comes, then spring, bringing frogs and sparrows, new friendships and adventures. Our baby has started on solids. Our spaniel struggles to get his hind legs up our two front steps after a walk. Suddenly, the neighborhood is teeming with robins, which my daughter attempts to befriend, and a fox even trotted up to our door this morning. The world is unfolding its hands again, full of gifts. It will lead her a little farther away from me, as it does every year. We’ve moved onto Stuart Little, but I still steal glances at Charlotte’s Web, the sublime last chapter in particular. If you have time this spring, I suggest you do the same. E.B. White perfectly captures the mixed emotions of the season: “The light strengthened, the mornings came sooner. Almost every morning there was another new lamb in the sheepfold. The goose was sitting on nine eggs. The sky seemed wider and a warm wind blew. The last remaining strands of Charlotte’s old web floated away and vanished.”