A family raising a mouse as one of their own children? A spider who befriends a pig and tries to save his life? Although some adults may have objected to these unusual story lines, E.B. White knew they would pose no problem for kids. As he once said, “Children can sail easily over the fence that separates reality from make-believe.”
White’s three children’s novels, “Stuart Little,” “Charlotte’s Web” and “The Trumpet of the Swan,” are still read around the world, many decades after they were written.
With a new illustrated biography, Melissa Sweet shows and tells us all about Elwyn Brooks White, born in 1899. And just as Charlotte the spider described Wilbur the pig as “some pig,” Melissa Sweet titled her book “Some Writer!: The Story of E.B. White.”
Sweet says that soon after she started researching White’s life, she knew that she wanted to include many examples of his writing. As she modestly puts it, “His essays and letters are so well crafted that he tells his life story much more beautifully and clearly than I ever could.” From the time he was a teenager, White wrote on carbon paper so that he would have a copy of each letter. The last page of this book features his response to a class of sixth-graders.
“Some Writer!” also presents five versions of the opening to “Charlotte’s Web” because Sweet wanted to show the importance of revising a first draft: “Some of my first questions were ‘Did writing come easily to E.B. White? Did he arrive at these stories without much effort?’ And the answer is no, there was a tremendous amount of effort.”
Along with interesting details about White’s life and career, Sweet’s book is bursting with full-color collages and illustrations that give a vivid sense of the family members, friends and places he loved. E.B. White’s granddaughter gave permission to use old photographs, and they are often incorporated into Sweet’s intricate collages. To add even more texture, Sweet also used office supplies that date from the time when White worked at the New Yorker magazine as well as materials that could be found in 20th-century barns. Sweet says she was “beyond grateful” when she got to visit the Maine farm where White spent much of his life.
Sweet has worked on many biographical books, both as a writer and as an illustrator, and “Some Writer!” took her about three years to complete. Designing the book was an exciting challenge.
“It was like a jigsaw puzzle where I was creating the pieces and putting them all together,” she said.
All of Sweet’s books discuss the achievements of her subjects, but she also likes to focus on “what was hard for them as kids and what did they struggle with later in life. I think that helps us remember they were a lot like us.”