Some Writer!: The Story of E.B. White
As a result of my own ineptitude I am late to the party with my review of SOME WRITER!: The Story of E.B. White an illustrated biography by the masterful author and illustrator Melissa Sweet about one of the masters of the written word, author E.B. White. SOME WRITER! has already earned abundant starred reviews, it peppers most “Best of 2016” book lists and has been selected as the 2017 Orbis Pictus winner by the National Council of Teachers of English. Clearly this is an astonishing book and one that should be read immediately by readers of all ages as well as those familiar and unfamiliar with the work of White. Those who are already fans of White will only grow more enamored with him, as a case in point I just purchased the ESSAYS OF E.B. WHITE, and those who are not soon will be after reading this biography.
Because of the tardiness of my review there is likely little I can say about the book that hasn’t already been said, therefore, I intend to highlight some of the material and elements of the book that spoke to me.
One cannot review a book illustrated by Sweet without devoting accolades to her art and formatting of the book. In an afterword to SOME WRITER! entitled “About the Art,” Sweet states, “I set out to capture two things as I began the art for this book: the sense of place in White’s writing and the small, vivid details he describes” (p.156). Sweet accomplishes this and so much more. Sweet’s art appears to be meant for White’s life and writings; just as the illustrations of Garth Williams appeared to be meant for White’s words and stories. Sweet is an extraordinary collage artist and, in her effort to capture White’s sense of place, she uses items that would have populated White’s environment to enhance her collages; such items include those that might be found in a barn, vintage office supplies, a manual typewriter and natural elements, such as eggs.
Throughout her watercolor enhanced collages Sweet has seamlessly woven photographs of White and White’s own words. My favorite elements, and perhaps the most impactful, are the actual handwritten manuscripts and letters from White himself. I think it is powerful for writers of all ages to see the typed drafts of White’s writings along with all of the edits and changes that he and others made. For example, on page 91, Sweet includes a typed and edited draft of the first page of CHARLOTTE’S WEB and indicates that there were at least seven drafts prior to this one. Although White’s writings, in their final draft forms, appear flawless and effortless the inclusion of these drafts provide a window into the amount of work White put into his writing. Sweet quotes White as saying, “I would rather wait a year than publish a bad children’s book, as I have too much respect for children” (p.64) and that is clearly evident in the drafts of White’s writing that Sweet integrated throughout the book.
A final element that whispered to me from the pages of SOME WRITER! is the sacredness that White placed upon being a writer and specifically a writer for children. I believe that because Sweet too understands this responsibility and sacredness of writing for children that she is able to aptly convey this quality in White as well. Although he may be best known for CHARLOTTE’S WEB, White’s first book for children was STUART LITTLE and as Sweet details in SOME WRITER! the reception that STUART LITTLE received was mixed with many adults thinking it absurd and inappropriate and many young readers embracing every word, character and plot point. In response to the controversy over STUART LITTLE, White said, “children can sail easily over the fence that separates reality from make-believe. A fence that can throw a librarian is nothing to a child” (p. 74).
Please indulge me in one final quote from White about writing for young readers:
“Anyone who writes down to children is simply wasting his time. You have to write up, not down. Children are demanding. They are the most attentive, curious, eager, observant, sensitive, quick, and generally congenial readers on earth…Children are game for anything. I throw them hard words, and they backhand them over the net” (p.130).
SOME WRITER!: The Story of E.B. White is evidence of two authors who themselves “backhanded (it) over the net” in their writing for children --- E.B. White and Melissa Sweet.
Reviewed by Aimee Rogers on December 14, 2016