Melissa Sweet’s Some Writer: The Story of E. B. White – Review by Monica Edinger
I wasn’t much of an E. B. White fan as a young teacher. Stuart Little was reasonably amusing, but Charlotte’s Web —what a tearjerker! And so in 1990, off to study classical children’s literature at Princeton University and not wishing to spend money on a new copy, I brought along a tattered used paperback edition of that soppy pig book; twenty-six years later it is one of my most precious possessions. For Professor Uli Knoepflmacher guided us through a close reading of Charlotte’s Web’s first chapter, took us deeper into the rest of it and the other two children’s books, provided wonderful material about the man, and transformed my opinion once and for all. That fall, wanting my 4th grade students to be equally enthralled, I modeled the same close reading of the first chapter and then had them each try a chapter on their own. It was wildly successful and so ever since I have started the year with an E. B. White author study. Even as I write this I think of my students yesterday excitedly telling me how they haven’t been able to put the book down since I gave it to them a few days ago. My collection of materials for the unit is vast, but there has always been something missing — a truly great child-friendly White biography. Happily, Melissa Sweet has now filled that hole with her glorious new biography, Some Writer! The Story of E. B. White.
Sweet’s work is probably already familiar to many of you. Her accolades are many, among them Caldecott honors for her illustrations for A River of Words: The Story of William Carlos Williams and The Right Word: Roget and his Thesaurus, both by Jen Bryan. Of the the many books she has illustrated and written, Balloons over Broadway: The True Story of the Puppeteer of the Macy’s Parade, full of fascinating details and wonderful primary sources, may well have been the best preparation for her newest work — the 176 page fully illustrated Some Writer! A Maine resident, Sweet lives close to White’s beloved farm, and, thanks to a longstanding relationship with his granddaughter, had remarkable access to primary sources. As a result photographs, letters, notes, drafts, sketches and more fill the pages of this outstanding biography — one I am sure will be appreciated by readers of all ages.
In clear and engaging prose, Sweet gives an informative and fascinating sense of the great writer’s life, honing in especially on aspects related to Charlotte’s Web, Stuart Little, and Trumpet of the Swan. In addition to delightful facts and anecdotes, there are those remarkable primary sources. Notes, drafts, drawings, photographs, and more fascinating material support her descriptions. (For more on her process check out this Publisher’s Weekly piece.) In some cases we can see the actual documents. In others, the art includes sketches by Sweet along with quotes from White’s letters, diaries, and other firsthand materials. Sometimes these are handwritten and others, done in a distinctive typewriter font. Aware that young readers today are unlikely to be familiar with this writing machine, Sweet begins the book with an illustration and text explaining just how a manual typewriter worked set opposite her Table of Contents with the different chapters not only in typewriter font, but looking to be on old reference cards.
Born in Mount Vernon, New York, on July 11,1899, White was a lifelong nature lover with warm and loving parents who supported and encouraged his love of words and writing. When he was twelve he began a journal, writing in it daily for the next twenty years without fail. In addition to excerpts from this, Sweet’s book is full of other wonderful bits of White’s early writing such as charming pieces of a brochure he created for a friend coming to visit them in their summer vacation spot in Maine. After graduating from Cornell, White moved into a lifelong career as a writer, joining the New Yorker Magazine within a few years. Sweet provides just the right amount of information about his young adulthood, of his travels, his friends, his farming, his love of nature, and family. And so when he begins writing for children, starting with Stuart Little, readers will be clear on what inspired him. Sweet’s choice in anecdotes are spot on, say the disapproval of Stuart Little expressed by a famous New York City children’s librarian. What was her problem? Read the book to find out! And then there is that no-longer-for-me-soppy-pig-book, Charlotte’s Web. The wealth of material included here is mind-boggling — drafts, anecdotes, notes — primary sources galore. With The Elements of Style, arguably his most famous work after the three children’s books, Sweet does something very clever — she provides substantial quotes from familiar contemporary children’s book writers such as Kate DiCamillo on the importance of this style manual for them.
What elevates this book into the stratosphere is the art. Practically glowing, it turns a very fine biography into something original, creative, and marvelous. Rare is the page in this book without it, from small spot illustrations nestled next to interesting paragraphs to others that fill pages. Sweet’s trademark mix-media is on full display here; there are collages, dioramas, paintings, sketches, everything possible. And so, to end, thanks to Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, here are a few pieces of the humble Melissa Sweet’s radiant art for the terrific Some Writer!.
Monica Edinger, a fourth grade teacher in New York City, is the author of books and articles about teaching, children’s literature, and other related topics as well as a professional book reviewer. She created and help runs SLJ’s Battle of the Kids’ Books and blogs at educating alice and the Huffington Post. Her first book for children was the acclaimed Africa is My Home: A Child of the Amistad.