A new children’s biography of E.B. White gives a unique and colorful insight into the life of the writer behind “Charlotte’s Web” and other beloved children’s books. “Some Writer! The Story of E.B. White” by Melissa Sweet tells White’s life story through both illustrations combining letters, photos, manuscripts and original collages and a lively story based on years of research.
Published recently by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, the engaging, beautiful book intended for children is a wonderful read for adults, too.
White, born as Elwyn Brooks White in New York and called Andy beginning in college, wrote three children’s books — “Stuart Little,” “Charlotte’s Web” and “The Trumpet of the Swan.” He also was a longtime contributor to The New Yorker, a former newspaper reporter and the co-author of the second edition of “The Elements of Style,” a bible for writers.
White lived in Maine for many years in an 18th century farmhouse in Brooklin that he and his wife owned. It was there that he raised chickens, wrote and was inspired to create the story that began “Charlotte’s Web.”
“What I discovered was in order to tell the story of how his children’s books came to be, I kept backing up and backing up and began with his childhood and his love of nature and Maine,” Sweet said.
The book weaves its way from White’s childhood in New York and summers in Maine, through his college years, young adulthood, and into marriage and his career.
Sweet crafted a story that gives keen insight into the man behind some of the most beloved children’s literature.
“There were a lot of things that I didn’t know [about White]. I had amazing access not just through Cornell [but also through the White family],” Sweet said. “[Granddaughter] Martha White is a neighbor and friend — the White family was just incredibly generous.”
She also was interested to discover how much E.B. White wrote about eggs.
“In some ways it makes sense,” Sweet said. “The idea of the egg is such a promising thing.”
In “Charlotte’s Web,” a spider’s egg sack represents the cycle of life — and was inspired by White’s own experience with an egg sack he found in his barn.
The decision to intersperse her writing with White’s own work — both in letters and manuscripts — was a way to enhance the story, she said.
“I thought: How am I, as the author, going to say this any better,” Sweet said. “My book just became a beautiful opportunity.”
Deciding how to distinguish White’s words from her own was a design challenge, she said, but it was one that she was able to tackle thanks to her experience as an illustrator. Using color and type from a manual typewriter — White owned and wrote on many through the years — helped accomplish that goal.
“The way I looked at the art was, there was going to be my art and the photographs and the letters and the excerpts from the book, and all of this had to be integrated,” Sweet said. “When it’s done right, the design is basically invisible.”
Sweet has been traveling to Maine islands to introduce kids to the book. The program, organized by Island Readers and Writers, has taken her to North Haven and Vinalhaven. Soon, she’ll travel to Swan’s Island as well.
“It’s been amazing so far. … One school set up an entire Zuckerman’s Farms in a classroom,” Sweet said. “It’s been remarkable that [Island Readers and Writers] made this happen.”
Sweet, who’s illustrated more than 100 books for children, was inspired to write and illustrate this book while on a walk with her dog.
“If I could write a biography of anybody, I thought to myself, who would it be? E.B. White. He was some writer,” Sweet said.
That thought led to the project and the title of the book.
“Why I thought he’d make a great subject was because there was … [a lot] of writing and he led a rich life,” Sweet said. “Personally, to have the chance to dive into this body of work with complete abandon was just an amazing gift.”
“Some Writer!” is available where children’s books are sold. Sweet will be signing copies of the book, giving a book talk and leading a kids’ activity at 3 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 10, at The Briar Patch on Central Street in downtown Bangor.