How a Classic Tale of Children's Fiction Can Help an Anxious World at Any Age
Imagine a doorway that could be opened in countries around the world to spark new and inspiring ways to face anxiety. And then consider that doorway being open and accessible to everyone no matter their age, race, culture, or belief promising to support good health and having a cumulative effect each time it was opened. This is not a make-believe doorway to Narnia. It is a very real door that opens into your own home when you pick up E. B. White’s classic childhood, Charlotte’s Web, at any age.
This literary classic not only stands as number one in all of children’s literature in a poll conducted by Publisher’s Weekly, but it was also voted seventh from the top of America’s 100 best-loved novels for all ages in the 2019 PBS television series, The Great American Read.
You may be wondering how sitting down to a story of a little girl who believes in talking farm animals and a wise and compassionate spider who saves the life of a terrific pig could possibly take on the immense task of calming an anxious world? The answer is: It worked for E.B. White. If he could face a childhood of anxiety and loneliness and go on to write Charlotte’s Web in his fifties—surely his story might open a door to soothe fears and anxieties in us today.
Keep in mind, all great stories are written for the one who crafts the story as well as the one who reads it, and the best writers write about what they know. And E. B. White? Well, he knew a thing or two about anxiety. According to Michael Sims, author of The Story of Charlotte’s Web, White discovered as a very young boy that his fondness for animals and love of nature were antidotes for his anxieties and fears. “From childhood to adulthood (White) was painfully shy, terrified of speaking in public or before a microphone—yet hugely ambitious and willing to try almost anything when no one was looking.”
White’s classic character—Charlotte the spider—is ferocious but compassionate. She sees a way forward for Wilbur the pig beyond the winter harvest when most pigs meet their fate to become bacon. She lovingly walks him through his fears and builds him up so that he can handle life even after she is gone.
As Charlotte is working on a plan to save Wilbur’s life she tells him,
“You must try to build yourself up. I want you to get plenty of sleep, and stop worrying. Never hurry and never worry! … Keep fit and don’t lose your nerve."
Imagine these words being said to you in the midst of a life challenge. Ultimately, the voice of Charlotte becomes a voice we all can hear in our own head. “You can do it. I believe in you. You are brave.” Over time, this becomes: “I can do it. I believe in myself. I am brave.” We see this played out with Wilbur – at first he told Charlotte he was “not terrific”, but by the time the humans found Charlotte’s word TERRIFIC in her web and began calling Wilbur this, he not only believed it, “he really felt terrific.”
Like the best mentors, stories help us transform voices of discouragement and limitation inside of us to voices of possibility. All of us, like Wilbur, are prone to worry and must face our own challenges in the real world. We can all use a “Charlotte” to guide us through our fears. And thanks to E. B. White and our public library system, she is available to us all free of charge.
A cornerstone of all fiction is empathy, teaching us ways to view the world that differ from our own. In Charlotte’s Web we find a cast of colorful barnyard characters having a variety of different experiences including the darkest of them all, Templeton the rat. When we can empathize with others in the pages of a story and see their world unfold in a beautifully crafted sentence, it can pull us out of our own anxieties and helps us to understand we coexist on a planet with a myriad of joys and struggles.
Perhaps the most wonderful news of all is that the very act of reading is good for our health. In a study conducted by The University of Sussex, reading a story for just six minutes reduces stress by 68%, more than listening to music, taking a walk, or having a cup of tea. University of Cambridge researchers have revealed that reading children’s fiction can “stimulate attention, imagination, memory, and other aspects of cognitive activity.” And according to literary researchers Anne Cunningham and Keith Stanovich, children’s books have 50 percent more rare words in them than does adult prime-time television and the conversation of college graduates. Who would not want to take advantage of these benefits of reading at any age?
When we can imagine something positive, it can bring about a feeling of inspiration. Reading fiction builds our imagination muscle and it opens a doorway to positivity and inspiration—a place where anxiety steps aside. So, why not believe in talking farm animals and the power of imagination? After all, if Charlotte could instill peace and create a bright future for Wilbur, perhaps she can do it for you too.
To meet Literary Apothecary and Curative Reader, Catherine Brooks, click here.
To learn more about how to enhance your health by reading Charlotte's Web and other great literary fiction slowly over time in a Curative Reading community click here.