All over the country articles are appearing in newspapers and parenting magazines giving adults advice on how to help kids cope if Harry Potter is killed off in this, the last book in the series. Some of the experts see this potentially fictional death as a good thing. It affords parents a "teachable moment," a way of talking about death in abstract terms and not in the wake of the actual death of a loved one.
C and I were face to face with such a moment last night when I read the end of Charlotte's Web.
Spoiler warning: If you happened to spend your childhood under a rock, as my husband did, and consequently don't know how Charlotte's Web ends, you might want to stop reading here. For the rest of you, I can tell you know the story because you're getting choked up already. Things might have gone better if I'd been able to get through the last two chapters without crying myself but I couldn't. It's one thing to read a sad story, it's something else entirely to read it out loud.
So I cried, and then he cried, and then he said he didn't want Charlotte to die and I said I didn't want her to die either. Then he said it was sad, and I agreed. Then he said we should throw the book away and I figured we'd better turn this into some kind of "teachable moment" lest he develop a childhood aversion to good literature. First I started with, "it's not a true story," which didn't help. Then I countered with, "Charlotte was old," which lead to a discussion about how a great many insects only live for short amounts of time. He seemed to be feeling a little better or at least somewhat distracted at this point. Then I said that sometimes books end sadly and he wanted me to name some other books that end sad. Not wanting to spoil Bridge to Terribithia or The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe, I didn't name any. Upon reconsideration however, I don't think those books are anywhere near as sad as Charlotte's Web. I think Charlotte's Web is perhaps the saddest children's book of all. In Bridge to Terabithia, the Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe, The Hobbit, even The Yearling and Old Yeller, it's possible to explain and thus understand why a character dies - Old Yeller had rabies (opps, sorry, don't tell me you haven't read Old Yeller either), the yearling was eating the crops. To say that Charlotte was old - despite being a valid reason for her demise, is not a particularly satisfying one. If Harry Potter gets killed off you can bet it's going to be in a blaze of glory, saving the world from evil, and not all alone at the county fair.
Perhaps E.B. White was just being true to the nature of spiders, but I believe the real reason Charlotte dies is that in her death, E.B. White has created an unforgettable character. Charlotette's Web was chosen for this year's Three Apples Book Award, a children's choice award. Not bad for a book that's over 50 years old. If Charlotte crawled back into Wilbur's crate and returned to the barn to live happily ever after, sure it would be nice, but it wouldn't be memorable.
Maybe Mr. White wrote it that way to torment future generations of parents who would find themselves tearing up over a gray spider. As I recall, Mr. White had no children of his own so having to read the story aloud to a young audience, for him, wasn't an issue.
song: Cry, Cry, Cry • artist: Johnny Cash