I love kid's books and the people who create them. However, I've found that kid's books about the people who create kid's books are not always exciting or interesting to read. Perhaps it is the subject, or maybe the author/illustrator, or likely a marvelous combination of both that make Some Writer! The Story of E.B. White by Melissa Sweet is a joyful, fascinating, beautiful book to read and look at. Sweet, who has an engaging collage style of illustration, makes personal artifacts like handwritten (and typed) letters, poems and stories, journals and brochures part of this vibrant, beautiful book. In fact, taking this quote from White, "I fell in love with the sound of an early typewriter and I have been stuck with it ever since," finds her visual theme for the book, giving it a (elevated) scrapbook feel.
Maybe I had some preconceived ideas about the childhood and life of the man who wrote Charlotte's Web and made The Elements of Style an essential text, but E.B. White is not the person I expected. Born Elwyn Brooks White, he was En to his family during childhood. In college at Cornell, En was nicknamed Andy. After graduating college, Andy and a pal took a Jack Kerouac style road trip across America in a Model T with two typewriters, earning money by selling sonnets, winning limerick contests, trading a typewriter for a new tire and $7.00 (after walking 32 miles carrying said typewriter to do so) and picking peas for thirty cents an hour over the course of ten hour days. They arrived in Seattle six months after leaving New York. Andy wrote a bit for the Seattle Times then, after being laid off, took a ship to Alaska and Siberia on his way back to his family home.
I guess what is fascinating to me most is that E.B. White straddled the world of children's books and adult literature at a time when many of our great American writers were beginning or well into their careers. As a teen, White submitted his writing to the popular St. Nicholas Illustrated Magazine for Boys and Girls. His published works earned him a a gold or silver badge and a spot in the St. Nicholas League, a place held by other budding writers like Edna St. Vincent Millay, William Faulkner, Eudora Welty and Rachel Carson. Harold Ross convinced Andy to come work at the The New Yorker with, "another writer he barely knew: James Thurber." When Andy wrote an essay for Harper's, decrying most children's books as dull, he singled out The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins by Dr. Seuss as a standout, being written in the "true spirit of nonsense." Geisel read this essay and sent it on to Anne Carroll Moore, the influential book reviewer and children's librarian at the New York Public Library. It was Moore who prodded Andy to revisit a story about a mouse he had crafted for his many nieces and nephews years earlier. The editor for Stuart Little was Ursula Nordstrom, THE editor of editors in the world of 20th century children's literature. I'll stop the name dropping here, but I do have to add that it was Andy who helped give the artist Garth Williams his first job illustrating a children's book. Having seen his work while at the The New Yorker, Andy knew he could bring Stuart to life. For me, Garth Williams is THE illustrator of my childhood, from classics like White's books to those of Laura Ingalls Wilder and Margaret Wise Brown.
The chapter on the creation of Charlotte's Web and the moments on White's farm in Maine that inspired it are imaginably poignant and every bit as moving as the book itself. The development of empathy in children is an individual experience, coming at different times for different children. As an adult, parent and person who works with children, I have noticed that I will often have an empathetic cry over something I have read in a children's book while the young reader remains dry eyed. A vivid childhood memory of mine is being six or seven years old and sitting on the couch in our living room while my mother read me the final chapters Charlotte's Web. I think I may have had strep throat, because this was definitely a special circumstance - the two of us together in this way. And, while I don't think that I cried when Charlotte died or even when her children left the barn, I do remember experiencing a sadness that for me, at that time, was something new. Somehow, with his story of life on a farm with a girl, a pig, a spider and a rat (who forever will have the voice of Paul Lynde for me) White touched upon a universal emotion for readers. Sweet shares that, when Andy recorded the audiobook for Charlotte's Web, it took seventeen takes to get through the chapter where Charlotte dies. "It's ridiculous," Andy told the producer, "a grown man reading a book that he wrote, and being unable to read it aloud because of tears."
As a person who loves words and writing, I was most fascinated by the chapter on The Elements of Style, a slim book on the fundamentals of English grammar. White graduated from Cornell in 1921, and while there he was a student of Professor William Strunk, Jr., author of The Elements of Style, and the person who taught White to, "omit needless words" from his writing. In the late 1950s, a Cornell classmate sent White a copy of this book, prompting White to write an essay about it for The New Yorker. From there, Macmillan asked Andy to allow his essay to be a forward to a revised edition of The Elements of Style, to which he added a conclusion for the new edition titled, "An Approach to Style," where he shared what he had learned as a writer. Sweet visits respected children's writers of today to share their experiences with and love for The Elements of Style. From Joyce Sidman to Paul Fleischman to Kate DiCamillo, Strunk and White have guided and inspired many a writer.
Reading the final chapters of Some Writer! as an adult was almost as sad as hearing the final chapters of Charlotte's Web as a child. White spent his final years on the farm, at one with nature. In a letter, he shared the experience being tailed by a coyote as he rode his bike along a trail, assuming that he was the, "first octogenarian on wheels," the coyote had ever seen and he was just trying to get a good look. White's eloquence and humor shine through always in Sweet's biography, making it a joy to read, much the way White's writing is a joy to read. Sweet ends her book with an author's note, sharing fascinating insights into how she created the artwork that accompanies her writing. Martha White, the daughter of Joel White, Andy's only child (he was stepparent to Roger and Nancy Angell, his wife Katherine's children from her first marriage) contributes and afterword. There is also an illustrated timeline, notes, a bibliography and an index, rounding out the perfectness of this unforgettable book.
Thank you, Melissa Sweet, for this stunning and unforgettable biography, a book that is equal to its subject.
Source: Review Copy