Reading Charlotte's Web

The book takes place so long ago it makes Mad Men look futuristic.  It came out in 1952 and has been a favorite of many elementary school classrooms and bedtime story readers ever since.  It was made into an animated movie in 1973 and again more than 30 years later.  There’s a very good chance you out there reading this blog read it in third grade. Yes, that’s right--we are reading Charlotte’s Web.

We started reading the very first day of school from a very well-worn copy I borrowed from another teacher that morning when I somehow couldn’t find mine anywhere in the classroom.  Though I was thankful to have been so easily able to snag a copy of this classroom staple from another teacher, the borrowed copy looks like it could have been practically a first edition for how yellowed and dog-eared it is.  And you can't pretend there's not a large, purple, heart sticker with the name Beth in white letters on the cover.

I was a little worried that pulling out such a clearly loved though somewhat ratty looking book that once apparently belonged to some rather proprietary “Beth” character would start us off on the wrong foot.  It’s our first read-aloud of third grade, a wonderful book, and a common experience shared by just about every American child born since the '50s—it had to get off to a great start.

I was also a bit afraid that some kids would know the story and would blurt out, “CHARLOTTE DIES”  (Oh—spoiler alert—Charlotte dies) before I had even cracked the first chapter.  I did a little bit of “don’t give away the ending if you know it” prep beforehand but though they’re all vaguely familiar with the existence of the 2006 movie, they were four years old when it came out and apparently most of them haven’t read the book either.  Many kids thought that either the girl on the cover or the pig she’s holding was named Charlotte.  We dove in.
Reading Chapter 1 – Before Breakfast

Nobody seemed to notice the disintegrating cover or care that we were reading Beth’s hand-me-down and they fell in love with our first read-aloud instantly.  Seriously—everyone was incredibly into Charlotte’s Web from day one.  The kids were outraged as Fern tried to stop her dad from killing the runt pig of the litter.  As I read it aloud, I was glad that the near-killing of the pig wasn’t sugar-coated or given some kind of Disney treatment.  This is the brutal reality of 1952, children.  There’s an ax in the very first line.

As Fern and her family ate breakfast, the room smelled of coffee and bacon.  I think it’s safe to say that nobody really picked up on the foreshadowing, but I had to hold myself back from noting that they were eating PIG.  Like that cute little one on the cover, everyone. 

When Fern managed to get her dad to spare the littlest pig’s life and we got to Fern feeding Wilbur with a baby bottle complete with rubber nipple—I opted to just leave that out.  No good can come of reading the word “nipple” to third graders.  Even with the context of a baby bottle, it’s still a silly-sounding word at best and an anatomy conversation I don’t want to have at worst.   I just went with, “She poured warm milk into the bottle, fitted the--uh--top on, and handed it to Fern."  The kids all agreed that it was a terribly cute picture of Fern feeding little runty Wilbur a bottle.

After a wholesome, 1952 schoolday breakfast--a doughnut--the chapter closed with Fern being called on in class that day, and replying to “What is the capital of Pennsylvania?” with, “Wilbur.”  These two lines featured disproportionately heavily in the retelling of this chapter as we reviewed the main events the next day.  Really, though it is pretty funny.  I mean--if one of my students answered a question in class by dreamily saying, “Willllbur,” I’d have to try very hard not to laugh. 

Read part II here.


Sarah said...

It's been so many years since I've read the book, but I still remember loving the book. I agree, though, about censoring some words to prevent classroom hysterics. Nipple is a good one, and so is underwear!

Sherri said...

Love this book, still! I was so happy when my kids both read it. I think dog-eared copies of books are the best sometimes....they've been loved!

Sarah Garb said...

Alright--so if there's any discussion in the book of any barnyard animals in their underwear....I'll be sure to omit that one ;)

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