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December 4, 2009

Donna VanLiere on CHARLOTTE'S WEB

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Donna VanLiere --- author of the bestselling holiday tales THE CHRISTMAS SHOES, THE CHRISTMAS BLESSING and THE CHRISTMAS SECRET --- humorously recalls having to muddle through her young daughter's fear of spiders to introduce her to the cherished E.B. White tale, CHARLOTTE'S WEB, which has since become one of her favorite books.

Things change when you have children. I had always heard that but never really understood it until I had a few of my own of my own. A reporter recently asked me what my favorite part of Christmas was, and I said that it was seeing it through the eyes of my children. It sounds hokey to anyone who isn't a parent, I know, but Christmas is magical and mysterious and miracles abound when it is shared with a child.

We started reading books to our kids when they were just old enough to use the edge of the cover as a teething ring. Several books line our shelves with tiny teeth marks in them, but I’m convinced a love for reading starts at that young age. Each day before nap and bedtime, it became ritual for them to run to the shelves and pull out several books to read. My oldest is now eight and the ritual hasn’t changed. When the kids were infants, we started wrapping books for Christmas presents, and to my chagrin, none of them have ever opened one and said, “Wow! A new book! I can’t wait to read it!” but has rather simply tossed it aside for the new Barbie or the truck with the obnoxious horn. But, it’s the book that stands up to time while batteries die, and Barbie loses an arm to the dog, and her hair gets tangled and ratty.

When my daughter Gracie was three, we wrapped up CHARLOTTE’S WEB for her at Christmas. It had a bright red cover and a picture of Fern, Wilbur, and Charlotte on the front. She looked at it and said, “Does that pig talk?” I assured her he did. “Does the spider talk, too?” I was getting excited! I assured her that Charlotte most certainly talked. She threw it aside. “Then I don’t want to read it. I don’t like spiders.” I put the book on the shelves and gave her days --- okay, weeks --- to play with her new toys and forget about the spider comment. One afternoon at nap time, I announced that we’d be reading a brand new book. I pulled CHARLOTTE’S WEB off the shelf and held it aloft like a spokesmodel for a food processor: “Ta-da! Isn’t it great?!”
“I don’t want to read that,” Gracie said. “It has that spider in it that talks, and I don’t like spiders.” It had been weeks. How did she remember that?

“But it was one of your Christmas books, and it’s so sweet and funny with lots of animals and a little girl who saves a pig,” I said, using as many words I could think of that would capture the attention of a three year old. “And Charlotte isn’t scary. She’s Wilbur’s best friend.”

She was wary. Could I be trusted? “Does it happen at Christmas?” she asked.

My mind raced for any Christmas scenes. “I don’t remember exactly but let’s read and find out.”

Again, the look of concern. She got the book for Christmas, but it doesn’t take place on Christmas so that means there’s no gifts or candy or Santa anywhere in the story, and there’s that issue of the talking spider again.

“Okay,” she said. “But if it’s scary, I’m stopping my ears from listening.”

She snuggled on my lap, and I read with great flourish, even doing all the voices. I edited out the part of Fern’s dad wanting to kill the runt of the litter because I figured if a talking spider was scary, then whacking a pig would throw her off the edge completely! We read two chapters that day before naptime, and I knew Gracie was hooked. Days later when we finished the book, she asked me to read it again. We have since read it several times together.

Gracie recently went to the shelves and saw CHARLOTTE’S WEB. “Remember you gave that to me for Christmas that one year, and I didn’t want to read it because of Charlotte?” I laughed. It had been years! How in the world did she remember? Notice, she didn’t pick up one of the one-handed Barbie’s and remember it as a Christmas gift? That’s because books and the memory of reading them together last! Give out several this Christmas.

Happy reading!

-- Donna VanLiere

Later on, Rosalind Noonan shares her thoughts on the true meaning of Christmas and good will toward men.