A Tale That Never Grows Old

Some stories grow even better with time. Especially when grandkids join in the fun.

I wasn’t yet born when “Charlotte’s Web” was published in 1952, but once I was able to read, it quickly became one of my favorites. How could anyone not love a book that opens with the line “Where’s Papa going with that ax?” But as I grew older and my reading choices grew more sophisticated, E.B. White’s beloved children’s novel fell by the wayside.

It wasn’t until my own children were old enough to enjoy it that I picked “Charlotte’s Web” up again. I read it to them over and over, and cried myself through a box of Kleenex every time. When my daughter Leigh was in second grade, the children in her class were encouraged to come to school one day dressed as their favorite fictional character. She donned denim overalls and a straw hat with a spider on the rim and tucked a stuffed baby pig under her arm. We’ve called her “Fern” ever since.

Fast forward thirty years. My Fern has two kids of her own now. Both have listened to “Charlotte’s Web” read aloud several times, at least once by yours truly. (And, yes, I cried.) They’ve both read it on their own, too. So when granddaughter June told me her class was performing the play as part of their end-of-the-school-year celebration and invited me to come to Kentucky to watch, I asked what character she was playing.

“Guess,” she said.


June shook her head.

“The mama goose?” Nope again. “Not… Charlotte?” June nodded. “Do you get to say ‘Salutations!’?”  She nodded again. “I wouldn’t miss it for the world,” I told her.

So last week I made the three hour drive to central Kentucky and snagged an empty chair in the basement classroom that served as the theatre. The play opened with the Arable family seated at the breakfast table. “Where’s Papa going with that ax?” Fern asked, and the magic began. As Wilbur—saved from the untimely death that often befalls the runt of the litter–grew, Fern persuaded her Uncle Homer Zuckerman to offer the dear little pig a home in his barn. She and Wilbur were both blissfully ignorant that spring pigs seldom live to see winter. The smokehouse loomed just beyond the barnyard, and the other animals quickly clued Wilbur in on what his future held in store.

Was there any way to save his life?

Enter Charlotte, aka my adorable and well-rehearsed June. Early one morning, from her web high in the corner of the barn doorway, she waved one of her eight legs at Wilbur and said “Salutations!” You probably know the rest of the story. Determined to save Wilbur from slaughter, Charlotte weaved words that described him in her web and thus made him famous. SOME PIG, her first message said. TERRIFIC read the second, followed by RADIANT and then HUMBLE.

If you don’t know whether the plan worked, it’s time to get your hands on a copy of “Charlotte’s Web.” Find the movie on TV. Or, best of all, watch little kids act out the play.

It’s an achingly beautiful story of fear and friendship, of loyalty and trust and sacrifice. And it’s a story about the great circles of life: Of daylight and dark, of the ever-changing seasons, of birth and death and new birth. Near the end, as spring came once again to Zuckerman’s farm, Charlotte’s children emerged from the egg sac Wilbur had lovingly protected through the long New England winter. The first graders at June’s school voiced the baby spiders.

“Salutations!” one of them squeaked softly.

And then the narrator read the famous last lines: Wilbur never forgot Charlotte. It’s not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a great writer. Charlotte was both.

I was exceedingly glad I’d stuffed plenty of Kleenex in my purse.

(May 25, 2024)