The miracle of a book is a mystery to children. They wonder where books come from. They think authors are, as E.B. White put it, “mythical being[s].” To children, books seem to be conjured out of thin air. Which, in a sense, like a spider’s web itself, they are.
In Some Writer: The Story of E.B. White (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016), Melissa Sweet has woven a miraculous, magical book that peels back a layer of this mystery to reveal the very human side of one of our most mythical authors, E.B. White.
Sweet’s inviting prose and inventive artwork immediately draw readers into White’s world. The illustrations are a hybrid of photos, collage, and watercolors. Sepia-toned photographs of White with his father and brother in Maine are followed by one of Sweet’s appealing watercolors. White’s own description of the scene, from his 1940 essay, “A Boy I Knew,” is typed out on vintage paper using a manual typewriter, serves as a caption. The effect is beguiling. I wanted to be sitting there “at the water’s edge [on] a granite rock upholstered in lichen.”
Drawing extensively on White’s letters and essays, Sweet takes readers from White’s childhood in Mount Vernon, New York to his death in Maine eighty-six years later. As a boy, he was surrounded by words and discovered at an early age that writing helped him “to assuage my uneasiness and collect my thoughts.” Keeping her text focused on how early events in White’s life impacted his development as a writer and his future work, Sweet helps readers see the roots of Stuart Little, Charlotte’s Web, and The Trumpet of the Swan in his life and his early writings.
White’s early poems and stories were published in St. Nicholas Illustrated Magazine for Boys and Girls. Sweet includes copies of these, giving the book the intimate feel of a scrapbook of a beloved relative. Readers will want to savor every page. Glimpses of White’s masterpieces for children are found throughout his life. Sweet writes about White’s time as a camp counselor at Camp Otter in Canada, and we learn about his road trip across the country in a Model T after graduating from Cornell.
Each major work, as well as The Elements of Style, is given its own chapter. We learn of the difficulties White had finishing Stuart Little, the criticism it received from librarians, and the love lavished on it by children. Sweet describes in detail how White’s farm in Maine, his doomed pig, and a spider’s egg sac coalesced into Charlotte’s Web. Sweet’s description, drawing on White’s own words, of how the opening scene of this book evolved is a master class in revision. As every writer knows, “revising is part of writing.” These scenes show how the fantastical elements of White’s fiction are grounded in the real world. As White replied to one of his critics, “children can sail easily over the fence that separates reality from make-believe.”
No detail in the design of Some Writer is ignored: chapter numbers are old typewriter keys, old-fashioned labels are used for page numbers and to identify the essay or letter of White’s that is being quoted. Sweet’s collages are perfect mentor texts for creative ways to convey information.
The publisher lists the age range as 7-10, but middle school readers will also find plenty to be inspired by in this book. All readers and writers have much to learn from E.B. White’s quiet wisdom about writing and life. Interested readers will want to explore the extensive endnotes and bibliography of White’s own work, as well as works written about him. There is a touching afterword by White’s granddaughter, Martha, and notes from Melissa Sweet about her writing process and her art.
Sweet writes with the economy White advocates in The Elements of Style. “Every word tell[s]” a key part of White’s story. She blends her words and her art with White’s words and demystifies the process of becoming a writer… “through hard work and being open to the world around you.”
After White’s death, Roger Angell, William Shawn, and John Updike wrote in his obituary, “White felt it was a writer’s obligation to transmit as best he can his love of life, his appreciation for the natural world.” Sweet’s love of and appreciation of E.B.White, his work, and the natural world shine out from every page of Some Writer. In her author’s note, Sweet quotes White, saying “It has been ambitious and plucky of me to attempt to describe what is indescribable…[But] a writer, like an acrobat, must occasionally try a stunt that is too much for him.” Like Charlotte’s Web itself, Sweet’s “stunt” is nothing short of a miracle.
Review copy received from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. An Educator’s Guide for Some Writer is available here.