Children are often confronted with harsh realities for which they are inadequately equipped. Innocence is fragile. Some of our earliest memories include bracing traumas of loss, and like every human being, children try to cope. They turn to God in their own way and often find Him in His interaction with them through creation. Just as seasons reflect in microcosm the seasons of our lives, our dominion over the animals is a means by which His watch-care over us can be better understood. For children especially, this is high theology. It is also a gateway to the power of literature.
In his book Naming the Silences, Stanley Hauerwas writes of the coping mechanisms terminally ill children sometimes find in Charlotte’s Web:
In stage 5, the children played less with their toys, but when they did so their play often included references to disease and death. They placed toys in graves, Bluebond-Langner observes, and “sedentary activity, especially coloring, increased, but the number of themes decreased. Most pictures dealt with destruction, storms, fires, and other disasters”. Yet another thing that changed was “their choice and di…scussion of literature.” Bluebond-Langner reports that the most popular book among the children was Charlotte’s Web, and the chapter they most wanted read is the one in which Charlotte dies. Even those children who read other books would, “when reading or retelling a story, focus on those aspects of the story that dealt with death, disease, or violence—regardless of whether or not it was the main thrust of the story”.
Aware that they were dying, some children “felt they could not speak freely, even with people they trusted, about their awareness of the prognosis. These children would not engage others in a conversation about the prognosis or another child’s death. They would simply state their awareness and terminate the discussion. One six-year-old boy announced, ‘I’m not going to school anymore,’ and turned over on his side, refusing to speak to me. A seven-year-old girl blurted out to her brother, ‘I won’t be here for your birthday,’ and crawled under the sheets.”
Although such behavior was extreme, almost all the children stopped talking to people close to them. “They would withdraw from family and friends, either through expressions of anger or through silence. ‘Then she [Mother] won’t cry so much and be sad.’ Eventually, even conversations about the disease came to an end. The children asked no questions. They knew the answers.”
Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me
Karen Swallow Prior
Such love for animals, and a knowledge of the sometimes harsh realities of farm life, made me a ready reader of Charlotte’s Web. I easily identified with eight-year-old Fern. She put two and two together pretty quickly when she saw that her father was headed out to the hog house with an ax to “do away with” the runt of a litter born the night before. I understood Fern’s desire to save the piglet’s life despite knowing, as she also knew, that the pig had been bred and born for eventual slaughter. Even so, I rejoiced with Fern at her father’s reluctant relent to Fern’s cries: the life of the runt would be spared and placed under Fern’s care.
These autumn days will shorten and grow cold. The leaves will shake loose from the trees and fall. Christmas will come, then the snows of winter. You will live to enjoy the beauty of the frozen world.… Winter will pass, the days will lengthen, the ice will melt in the pasture pond. The song sparrow will return and sing, the frogs will awake, the warm wind will blow again. All these sights and sounds and smells will be yours to enjoy, Wilbur—this lovely world, these precious days.
Ecclesiastes 3: 1-8
To everything there is a season, A time for every purpose under heaven: A time to be born, And a time to die; A time to plant, And a time to pluck what is planted; A time to kill, And a time to heal; A time to break down, And a time to build up; A time to weep, And a time to laugh; A time to mourn, And a time to dance; A time to cast away stones, And a time to gather stones; A time to embrace, And a time to refrain from embracing; A time to gain, And a time to lose; A time to keep, And a time to throw away; A time to tear, And a time to sew; A time to keep silence, And a time to speak; A time to love, And a time to hate; A time of war, And a time of peace.
D i g D e e p e r
E.B. White and Charlotte’s Web
(1899–1985). Although his publications range from three well-known children’s books to numerous essays, books, and poems for adults, E.B. White’s works consistently display eloquent craftsmanship and a keen sense of observation.
Elwyn Brooks White was born on July 11, 1899, in Mount Vernon, New York. He attended Cornell University on a scholarship and served as editor in chief of its daily newspaper. After receiving a bachelor’s degree in English in 1921, he worked for the United Press, the American Legion News Service, and the Seattle Times. He took a job as a mess boy aboard an Alaskan ship in 1923 but returned to Mount Vernon later in the year to work in an advertising agency.
The founding of The New Yorker magazine in 1925 proved pivotal to White’s career. After having several submissions accepted, he joined the staff full-time in 1927. He married one of the editors, Katharine Sergeant Angell, in 1929 and became stepfather to her two children; a son was born to them the following year. Although the couple later left New York for a Maine farm, White remained a lifelong contributor to the magazine. He also wrote a monthly column entitled “One Man’s Meat” for Harper’s magazine from 1938 to 1943.
White’s publications for adults included The Lady Is Cold (1929), Is Sex Necessary? (1929, with James Thurber), Farewell to Model T (1936), The Fox of Peapack and Other Poems (1938), The Wild Flag (1946), The Second Tree from the Corner (1954), and The Points of My Compass (1962). Letters of E.B. White was published in 1976, and a collection of his essays appeared a year later. White also contributed to and revised several editions of William Strunk Jr.’s classic writer’s manual, The Elements of Style.
White’s first children’s book was Stuart Little (1945), an adventure story about a two-inch-(5-centimeter-)tall, mouselike son born to average human parents. White followed the success of that book with Charlotte’s Web (1952), winner of the 1958 Lewis Carroll Shelf Award and runner-up for the 1953 Newbery Medal. The book tells of a small pig whose life is spared twice, first by a farmer’s daughter and later by the ingenuity of a friendly spider. White drew inspiration for the tale from observing his own farm animals. The book was adapted into an animated film in 1972. White’s final children’s book, The Trumpet of the Swan (1970), chronicles the life of a mute trumpeter swan who learns to communicate by writing on a slate and by playing a trumpet. It was nominated for the National Book Award in 1971 and was included on the 1972 International Board on Books for Young People Honor List.
White received a multitude of honors, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom (1963), the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award (1970), and the National Medal for Literature (1971). In 1978 he was awarded a Pulitzer Prize special citation for his body of work. White died in Maine on October 1, 1985.
A children’s novel by E.B. White, published in 1952, with illustrations by Garth Williams. This widely read tale, which is one of the classics of children’s literature, takes place on a farm in Maine and concerns a pig named Wilbur and his devoted friend Charlotte, the spider who manages to save his life by writing words in her web. White’s own life on a farm contributed to the tranquil, pastoral setting of the book and the careful observations of animal behavior. The novel explores, among other things, the nature of friendship, a theme many adults, as well as children, have appreciated.
Karen Swallow Prior
Karen Swallow Prior is Professor of English at Liberty University and an award-winning teacher. She is a contributing writer for The Atlantic.com and for Christianity Today, where she blogs frequently at Her.meneutics. Her writing has appeared in Relevant, Think Christian, and Salvo. She is a Research Fellow with the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, a member of INK: A Creative Collective, and a member of the Faith Advisory Council of the Humane Society of the United States.
Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me
Booked draws on classics like Great Expectations, delights such as Charlotte’s Web, the poetry of Hopkins and Donne, and more. This thoughtful, straight-up memoir will be pure pleasure for book-lovers, teachers, and anyone who has struggled to find a way to articulate the inexpressible through a love of story.