Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Charlotte's Web

This isn't going to be a great blog post, but I have thoughts that I want to share - with anyone. This will be wandering and cover a couple of my interests. 

I listened to E.B. White read his book Charlotte's Web today - yes, all in one sitting. As I listened, I considered what a different world it is from when this story was written around 1952. 

The children, Fern and Avery had lives of their own. They went to school, did their work then kept themselves busy.  They weren't sheltered from the realities of farm life. Wilbur was going to be killed and 8 year old Fern convinces her father to spare his life. There's no talk of whether she's old enough to have this discussion or keep a pig. Though unspoken, it's a lesson in responsibility and Fern steps up. Fern can do this because she is responsible for her non-school hours. She doesn't go to sports activities, or dance class. She doesn't have play dates. She has time. She is expected to keep herself out of trouble.  Mom and Dad don't keep her in their sights all the time.  Wilbur is sold by Fern to her Uncle Homer Zuckerman for $6.00. Her father doesn't do it for her although he suggests the price.  From then on Fern spends most of her time at her Uncle Homer's farm. She watches the animals, gets to know them, and they become her friends. Her mom worries about this fascination with her animal friends, but after a chat with the doctor, decides it's probably alright and she'll grow out of it. It's a phase.

There is no talk of germs or dangers. Fern bottle feeds Wilbur and sits in the dirty farmyard and barn. She swings from an amazing rope swing, taking turns with her brother.  The children go to the fair and are given money then told to be back in time for lunch. They are given two admonitions. Watch out for pickpockets and hang on when you ride the ferris wheel. The children survive to the end of the book. 

Death is openly discussed. It's a fact of life. Living things die. Wilbur is saved for a time, but the book itself is about saving Wilbur from becoming Christmas dinner. Although Wilbur is saved, his friend Charlotte the spider dies of old age.  We see loss through the eyes of the pig but are reminded that life goes on with the birth of Charlotte's many, many offspring. 

These characters are about as human as an animal can be. We see shortcomings as well as finer qualities.  No character is all good or all bad and I like it that way. 

If there hasn't been a curriculum based on this book, there should be. There are lesson there for the adults of today just as much as there are for the kids.

From a literary standpoint, I think it's a work of art. It grabs your attention and then tells a great story.  If it were published today, It wouldn't be as good. E.B. White did a lot of teaching throughout the book. We learn about the life of a rat through Templeton, How a goose would speak if you could understand him, That although freedom is a wonderful thing, sometimes home is better. 

This is where I wander into my thoughts as an author and lover of words....

The book has a wonderful vocabulary. It isn't adjusted to accommodate the age of the reader but the big words are explained by definition as Charlotte explains things to Wilbur and through context. White isn't afraid to make a statement, then to clarify. I really like that about his work. Vocabulary controlled writing hinders an author's ability to use just the right word. It also doesn't challenge the reader. A story with a controlled vocabulary reduces the breadth of the readership because it is less likely to hold the attention of a more sophisticated reader.

A recent writers conference I attended made it clear the writer should get to the point. Don't restate what has already been said and don't use a big word when a smaller one will do. I'm not entirely sure I agree. Much of what I learned about writing when I was a student has been replaced with what appears to me to be a lack of respect for the reader. That said, at the conference, one of the agents on a panel (as the others nodded their heads) said that thanks to email, the volume of what they have to read has increased exponentially. If the author doesn't get to the point of the story before the end of the first page chances are the agent won't read any further.  I love descriptive, beautiful language, but if I ever submit a novel, I know to save it for later chapters and revisions after my book has been accepted. I'm afraid those tomes of yesteryear wouldn't make it past an agent.  

I read books and listen to audiobooks all the time and I like older books better. I like reading about the depth of a character's feeling. I don't mind looking up a word if context fails me. I like learning new things through fiction. I want to know in detail what a character is wearing. Please, describe to me what the sky looks like and the multicolored hues in the clouds as the sun rises or sets.  Give me action. Tell me how shoes slap against the pavement during a chase - bring on the adjectives and adverbs because they make the story richer and give it shading. Sometimes, I like to fill in the blanks, but often I want to get lost in the lush visions of someone else's world. I want them to leave nothing to my imagination because their imagination has been allowed free reign. 

I don't want Fern's childhood to be one of the past, I want children to have hours to do as they please - to have adventures, do ridiculous things, watch the clouds because it's too hot to do anything else. 

I want everyone to have literature worth reading that's full of adventure and life. I want it to stretch whoever reads it in all sorts of ways. I want it to be worthy of sharing and reading aloud. I want it to be something that is more motivating than anything that can be seen on a screen. Maybe if once again books are written as if reading is the best of pastimes, then it will once again be viewed that way.

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