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ROBIN ABCARIAN

'Web' Casts a Spell on Mother and Child : Sometimes, a toddler's obsession with a particular story is a wondrous thing, forcing her parents to rethink the world, even if the repetition makes them want to scream.

July 27, 1994|ROBIN ABCARIAN

My daughter has developed a passion for "Charlotte's Web," E.B. White's childhood classic about the extraordinary friendship between Charlotte, the tiny erudite spider, and Wilbur, the ingenuous, neurasthenic pig.

For those who have forgotten, or who are occupied with other literary matters--such as the questionable parenting techniques advanced in "Good Dog Carl" or the odd housekeeping habits of "Good Night Moon"--allow me a moment of exposition.

At Zuckerman's farm, Charlotte befriends Wilbur, who faints whenever he hears talk of what fine bacon he'll make someday. The barnyard is populated by snobby sheep, stuttering geese (it's their "idio-idio-idiosyncrasy") and a self-serving rat named Templeton.

Charlotte promises to devise a plan to save Wilbur from the butcher's ax. She tricks the Zuckermans into believing Wilbur has preternatural gifts by spinning words into her web above his pen: "some pig" and "terrific" and "radiant" and "humble." Wilbur wins a special medal at the county fair for generating tourism, and his longevity is assured.

We have read the book, written in 1952, and watched the remarkably faithful 1972 cartoon musical. Though our not-quite-2-year-old Supreme Commander shows a preference for the video, she is not averse to sitting on a lap and soaking up the story the old-fashioned way.

It's been a couple of weeks now that we've been held captive to the story, and though there are times I would like to pull my hair out, I have to admit, Wilbur is some pig.

And "Charlotte's Web" is some story.

*

It has allowed me to peek inside the mind of my child, to observe the extraordinary leaps in language and comprehension she makes each day, and to marvel at development of empathy in one so young.

Her Highchairness rises each morning, commanding, "Amels!" from her crib, by which she means "animals" her idio-idio-idiosyncratic shorthand for "Charlotte's Web."

She squeals and cries out in horror as she watches Mrs. Fussy chase Wilbur with a broom, cornering the piglet under the piano, and later babbles incessantly about the "lady" and the "broom" and the "owie." In a day and age that finds so many children inured to the suffering of others, her concern is a comfort. She will be sensitive to the pain of others, I think. A good sign.

In "Charlotte's Web," as children learn about friendship, adults are reminded of the natural world beyond our urban jungle, a world governed not by deadlines and time cards, but by the seasons and the inexorable patterns of life. For every beginning, there is an end, but, oh, what a wonderful middle there can be.

And we are gently chided about our fears:

"Mothers for miles around worried about Zuckerman's swing. They feared some child would fall off. But no child ever did. Children almost always hang onto things tighter than their parents think they will."

How true. I hope.

*

The world of children's literature can be a trying place for adults. The more tedious the story, it seems, the more besotting to the child .

Much as I love the open-minded message behind "Green Eggs and Ham," there is only so much range of inflection a human being can muster for its limited text ("I am Sam. Sam I am.") Frankly, I am sick of Sam.

So as I involuntarily memorize parts of "Charlotte's Web," I come to appreciate its gorgeous prose almost as much as its simple truths:

"The crickets felt it was their duty to warn everybody that summertime cannot last forever. Even on the most beautiful days in the whole year--the days when summer is changing into fall--the crickets spread the rumor of sadness and change. . . . A little maple tree in the swamp heard the cricket song and turned bright red with anxiety."

Though White's enduring contribution to fiction is "Charlotte's Web," he was, of course, a prose pillar of the New Yorker for decades and co-editor of every budding writer's bible, "The Elements of Style."

How simple, how perfect, then, are the last words of "Charlotte's Web" a tribute to the selfless spider:

"She was in a class by herself. It is not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer. Charlotte was both."

A fine aspiration, I think, for readers big and small.

* Robin Abcarian's column is published Wednesdays and Sundays.

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