Friday, October 10, 2014

For the love of a good chapter book

"I cried while I was reading 'Charlotte's Web' to Lily today," I told Brad the other day.

"Seriously?" he said.

"Yeah. Lily kept asking me why my nose was red and offered to get me tissues. She was worried and confused."

"Your nose does get really red when you cry." 

To which I told him that it's always felt unfair that an emotional basket case such as myself should not at least be given the power to cry neatly and discretely like those stoic eye dabbers who seem to handle sadness with grace and cool.

Given the fact that the girls have been on a bit of a "Charlotte's Web" kick, watching the movie at least three times last week, Brad was surprised that I cried over the book. Shouldn't I be used to it by now?

But it's different when you're reading it, I told him. When your little one is snuggled up next to you and you get to the part at the end where Charlotte knows she's dying but doesn't tell Wilbur, because she knows how distraught the news will make him. 

And you read this passage where Wilbur asks Charlotte why she's been such a good friend and you're filled with the memories of childhood and the perpetual sentimentality of motherhood:
"Why did you do all of 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. I wove my webs for you because I liked you. After all, what's a life, anyway? We're born, we live a little while, we die. A spider's life can't help being something of a mess, with all this trapping and eating flies. By helping you, perhaps I was trying to lift up my life a trifle. Heaven knows anyone's life can stand a little of that." 
Even now, as I read it for the 100th time, tears.

Because it sums up how fleeting our time is, right? A minute ago I was 8 or 9 reading about Fern and Wilbur and Charlotte and the Geese and Henry Fussy and the ferris wheel. And now I'm grown and sharing it with Lily and Jovie. And in a second they'll read it themselves. And then a few more minutes, and they'll be the ones crying over the miracle of friendship and the brevity of our time here. 

More so than when I was little, I relate to Charlotte. How she recognizes her own faults in a messy world and wants to do even the smallest thing to make it better. To make it matter just a little more than it did before she arrived.

So that's why I cried. And if I'm the only one here, well, just tell me enough already and point me to the nearest bottle of Zoloft.

I'm on a bit of a middle grade kick recently. Especially where friendship is the central theme. 

I just finished reading my friend Beth's excellent debut, "Pack of Dorks."

The book shares the story of Lucy, who goes from being one of the most popular girls in fourth grade to a social outcast with just one kiss. To make matters worse, Lucy's parents are distracted by the birth of her little sister, born with Down Syndrome. So she's left to navigate her new-found status on her own until, until she joins forces with the classmates she'd previously looked down on.

Just as "Charlotte's Web" tells the story of an underdog (well, underpig) who learns to love himself because a friend believed he was worthy, "Pack of Dorks" illustrates the power of a smile and the importance of making room for everyone at the (lunch) table. 

The characters only become their best selves when they're able to look past their misconceptions of those around them. What a fantastic message to share with our children. And Beth writes the story with sassiness and humor both kids and adults will appreciate. Lucy is imperfect, but trying. Just like the rest of us.

Reading "Pack of Dorks" made me remember this day back when I was 11 or 12. I was walking home from school and these two boys from my class were following behind barking at me. For two blocks. I refused to turn back to acknowledge them or let them see the tears streaming down my face. I remember the boys' names to this day, but will refrain from outing them with the hopes that they're adolescent assholery was just a phase and that they're nicer people now. 

As a tween (that term didn't really exist when I was a tween) I felt somewhat adrift. I had a friend or two, but not that type you could really count on as an ally against howling boys. At that point, my sister Sarah would've been in middle school. I'm sure had she been walking with me that day, she would've stood up for me. She's never been real tolerant of jerks. 

I hope my girls won't have to deal with jerks. But life is as long as it is short, so I suppose it's inevitable. When the day comes that they're faced with someone trying to diminish them, that they have the right friends who can build them back up. 

For that matter, I hope my girls are never the jerks. 

It's funny to re-read the books of your childhood as an adult. I don't know that I ever had an appreciation for E.B. White's simple prose, even as he laid the foundation for my love of writing.

And farms. I love this passage from "Charlotte's Web":
"The barn was very large. It was very old. It smelled of hay and it smelled of manure. It smelled of the perspiration of tired horses and the wonderful sweet breath of patient cows. It often had a sort of peaceful smell -- as though nothing bad could happen ever again in the world. It smelled of grain and of harness dressing and of axle grease and of rubber boots and of new rope. And whenever the cat was given a fish-head to eat, the barn would smell of fish. But mostly it smelled of hay, for there was always hay in the great loft up overhead. And there was alway hay being pitched down to the cows and the horses and the sheep."
Since reading it, I've uncovered some other E.B. White moments in life. Like this note my sister Laura posted to Facebook recently:
"Good news. Good news. The bulbs from White Flower Farm (courtesy of Mom and Dad) arrived today. The timing couldn't be more perfect. I will bring them on Saturday so that all takers may choose! These little beauties will provide sustenance for our souls throughout the winter as we daydream of the moment their tender shoots pierce the frozen tundra and their sunny faces greet us. Hope in a box."
And the other night when Lily ran through the house shouting: 
"Come on everybody, come quickly. I want to show you something amazing. The moon! The moon! The moon! Isn't it beautiful?"
I got teary then, too (surprise, surprise). But it was too dark for Lily to see my red nose.

Lily's moon.

1 comment:

  1. I loved this piece! You have both empathy and a good writing skill.