Some Writer! The Story of E.B. White
by Melissa Sweet
E.B. White (1899-1985)--author of Stuart Little, the 1953 Newbery Honor Medalist Charlotte's Web and The Trumpet of the Swan--is not only beloved as a children's book author, he was a true writer's writer. He called his own shots as a New Yorker columnist, wrote poetry and essays, added his quietly brilliant touch to his old Cornell professor William Strunk, Jr.'s The Elements of Style--now known as "Strunk and White"--and won over the world with his precise prose stylings in Letters of E.B. White.
Melissa Sweet, Caldecott Honor artist of Jen Bryant's The Right Word: Roget and His Thesaurus and A River of Words: The Story of William Carlos Williams, has written and illustrated Some Writer!, the first-ever visual biography of E.B. White, with the blessing of his granddaughter, Martha White. Her enthusiastic afterword proclaims, "Here, in these pages, you will find the grandfather I remember so well, the man with a dachshund on his desk and his hands on a manual typewriter."
This "visual biography" is an elaborate scrapbook bursting with delightful, colorful collages made up of Sweet's charming original paintings, whimsical dioramas and maps; abundant family photos; paper ephemera; vintage office supplies; pieces of old books; chunks of barn; eggs; leaves; and old typewriter keys. The pages whisper "labor of love." In Sweet's "About the Art" note, she explains that she wanted to capture "the sense of place in White's writing and the small, vivid details he describes." She succeeds mightily, especially in reflecting the bucolic wonders of the 40 acres the Whites bought near Maine's Blue Hill Bay during the Depression, and the barn where the pig and spider of Charlotte's Web were born.
In a clean, engaging style and "clear, brief, bold" sentences fit for an E.B. White biography, Sweet takes readers on a journey through his life, starting with White's earliest days, when, as he wrote in the Paris Review, he "suffered nothing except the routine terrors of childhood." It almost seems that Elwyn Brooks White--called "En," and, later, "Andy"--didn't have a chance not to be a writer. In his childhood home in New York, he learned to read when he was five with the New York Times, his dad made him look up unknown words, and at dinner he and his five siblings would finish the last lines of his father's limericks.
Nostalgic adults and aspiring young writers alike will devour the details of White's literary life, from his first story submissions to his studies at Cornell University (where he fell in love with Thoreau's Walden and became a passionate believer in freedom of expression) to an epic 1922 cross-country road trip from New York to Seattle in a Model T roadster (gloriously mapped by Sweet) to his first New Yorker piece in 1925 and, of course, his eventual tumble into children's books. His personal life is folded into the story effortlessly as well, including his marriage to New Yorker fiction editor Katharine Sergeant Angell and the birth of their son, Joel. (There's a timeline in the back, too.)
Sweet gives White himself the floor quite often, peppering quotations from his books, journals and letters throughout, all thoroughly sourced. In a design decision representative of the book's thoughtful choreography, White's words are always typed on a manual typewriter, most often accompanied by identifying tags. He writes, "I discovered... that writing of the small things of the day, the trivial matters of the heart... was the only kind of creative work which I could accomplish with any sincerity or grace."
By the time New York librarian Anne Carroll Moore begged E.B. White to write a children's book, he had moved with his family from New York to Maine, where he had reveled in many happy summers as a child. Those years spent with his wife and son were "a time of enchantment" for him: "I was suddenly seeing, feeling, and listening as a child sees, feels and listens." The stories behind Stuart Little and Charlotte's Web are thrilling for those who hold dear the dapper mouse, spider and pig. Garth Williams's funny sketches of different versions of Charlotte the spider's face are priceless (one on the cutting-room floor was modeled after the Mona Lisa), as are the many handwritten rough drafts of the opening page of Charlotte's Web. (One early version began, "Charlotte was a big grey spider who lived in the doorway of a barn." White ended up with: "Where's Papa going with that ax?")
In addition to behind-the-scenes glimpses of children's publishing, Sweet also illuminates White's New Yorker years, partly spent with the illustrious James Thurber, and the history of The Elements of Style, proving the now-classic Strunk and White primer is alive and well through a discussion of how contemporary children's book authors Kate DiCamillo, Joyce Sidman and Paul Fleischman still use it to shape their award-winning poetry and prose.
Sweet pulls out all the stops to bring the legendary author to life for readers young and old in her fresh and beautiful tribute, just as down-to-earth, playful and steeped in the wondrous natural world as E.B. White would have wanted it to be. --Karin Snelson, children's & YA editor, Shelf Awareness