Posted by: jeannineatkins | September 21, 2008

Webs: Charlotte’s and Ordinary Spiders’

I love starting the semester reading Charlotte’s Web. It may be like starting a poetry unit with the best-ever sonnet; everything here, tone, setting, characters, theme falls so perfectly in place. One astute student pointed out how on the first page, when Fern wonders about her father with an ax, then stops him from killing the runt, we immediately get the themes of friendship and love and saving someone. We had engaged discussions, perhaps the most volatile was pro and con Templeton the rat; some saw him as merely no good, while others, perhaps led by the student who claimed, “Templeton’s the man,” believed he had even more to offer than good dialogue, though that might be great enough.

I asked, “How many had the pleasure of reading this novel outside? On the grass. In a tree.”

The one student who shyly raised her hand later told me she also had the pleasure of reading the book for the first time, and fell in love. Seeing she could hardly keep her hands off my annotated version, I asked if she’d like to borrow it: she sweetly and politely snatched it while nodding.

“How many noticed a spider’s web this week?” I asked.

They laughed, but I urged them to look in the morning, when dew was on the grass and branches. Maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised, while discussing the setting, someone said of the farm. “That had to be something just in the forties or fifties, when this was written. Things couldn’t happen like that now.”

My jaw fell a bit. Or maybe a lot. I’m used to my own life being history. Even, the other day, I called “The Stinky Cheese Man and other Fairly Stupid Tales” a classic. But I wasn’t ready to think that wonderful barn was anything but timeless. I told them that while driving to their college, about a mile away, I saw blue lights flash and checked to see that I was close to 40 mph, the speed limit on the windy road. It turned out that wasn’t the issue, but the cop was stopping me due to cows in the road. I watched while a farmer on an ATV tried to herd them back to the pasture. That ATV; now that’s just not right. At least the farmer whistled.

Okay, things do change and sadly, maybe my students, who could accept the talking animals but found the farm strange, are right. Places with miracles do vanish. Can we take a field trip to one of the farms around here that are now selling apples and butternut squash by the bushels, and sometimes also lattes or cider donuts as a way to make ends meet? Can they sneak behind to sniff the barns, see if there’s a rope swing from the hay loft? Extra credit for finding a spider’s web.



  1. Could it really not happen now? My father and mother went to vet school when they didn’t do any specific training to teach you about “small-animal” practice (dogs and cats). My dad, a native of the LA area, had to spend a summer working with pigs (or sheep?)before getting in to the college, to show them he wasn’t just a city boy, I guess.
    Maybe it really has changed that much. My son’s elementary school DID take field trips to farms. But just up here in our hills, five minutes from that nearest latte, there is an apple orchard that’s stil individually owned, and you can turn up a driveway to buy fresh eggs, and somebody even owns an Icelandic horse ranch. So maybe not.
    My sisters and I can’t read that book without identifying Charlotte with our mother. In a good way.

  2. Funny the things we take for granted. L has been surprised that so many people are amazed that she worked at a farm. Country living…works for me! On a sad note – all our orchards nearby are hurting due to the hail from the summer storms. So many apples destroyed 😦

  3. There are still plenty of farms. Farms without ATVs, even. I’m moderately scandalized!

  4. I love these posts of yours
    They are VERY CHARLOTTE! 🙂

  5. I do want to think it can happen now!
    So sweet that you think of your mom as Charlotte. Good writer and good friend.

  6. Yes, we do kind of take the goats and chickens and apple orchards for granted. Yay for L for working on a farm. She’ll carry that special knowledge through her life.

  7. Thank you! Oh, to aspire to be Charlotte; you’re too sweet.

  8. Good, good. I want there to be farms and whiny but loving pigs forever.

  9. Oh golly, no farms like that? When I go to get the mail at the Post Office in about 2 hours, and head out for a quick walk first, I’m going to walk right past one of those farms (to see a photo, check out this “Where I Live entry:
    I doubt they have a rope swing in the hay loft, because the kids are young adults now, but there’s definitely a hay loft, spider webs, a working milkhouse, and all of that.

  10. Your post made me feel even more lucky that I spent some time on my cousin’s farm in Ireland this summer. When I was growing up in the city, farms were just something in story books. Seeing one in action– the sounds, the smells (!)– is amazing. I’m glad to be able to give my daughter that experience. But many of us don’t have access to that… and if we drive past a farm, we don’t feel comfortable just stopping by to nose around (even though we may want to).
    Thought-provoking topic, Jeanine!

  11. Thank you. I am feeling better. I like your picture, and I agree with you: I love those farm smells, always have.

  12. a cousin’s farm in Ireland — can’t get much more rich in story than that. Yes, how great you could give your daughter that experience. My students did love Charlotte’s Web, but I suppose if you have something from life to connect to it, there’s a layer added.

  13. I love Charlotte’s Web–it was my daughter’s favorite book all through childhood, and we must have read it to her five times before she developed the ability to read it herself, and read it at least another five times. Maybe it is dated, but I can’t go to a county fair (an adult experience for me, since I grew up in NYC) without thinking of Fern, and it’s only as an adult that I can truly appreciate the beauty of a spider’s web.

  14. I couldn’t comment on this wonderful post when I read it, but I keep thinking about it. Charlotte’s Web is hands down my favorite book ever, and the thought of having a discussion about characters like Templeton is irresistible!
    Don’t know all that much about farms today, but I guess there are still some magical ones around. Have you seen The Real Dirt on Farmer John? His farm, while not a classic one, certainly has some of its own magic!

  15. Spiders webs — yes, I think maybe you have to be six or under or much older to really see them as that wonder.
    I always knew A had great taste in books! That is one I wouldn’t mind reading five times.
    Fairs — wish I could think more of Fern; can’t work up much taste for them, although it’s always good to see a few goats in a tent.

  16. Thanks for your very sweet comment. I agree with you re Charlotte’s Web, and it tops lists I’ve seen of teacher’s favorites, too. Up there with To Kill a Mockingbird; those two cover most of what you need to know about life.

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