Wednesday, October 05, 2016

Some Biography! Some Writer! The Story of E. B. White by Melissa Sweet

The Master of Ceremonies spoke. "The fame of this unique animal has spread to the far corners of the earth, attracting many valuable tourists to our great state. You will all recall that day last summer when the writing appeared mysteriously on the spider's web in Mr. Zuckerman's barn. This miracle has never been explained. All we know is that we are dealing with supernatural forces here, and we should all be proud and grateful. In the words of the spider's web, this is 'Sooome Pig'."                                                                                                                       --Charlotte's Web

In 1952, E.B. White (known as Andy) was already well-known, one of the founding writers at the New Yorker magazine. A much loved youngest child, well-educated, a father, and a husband of a co-writer at the magazine, White's first love was rural Maine where he had a small farm, and where one of the best-loved children's books of the twentieth century, Charlotte's Web, had its genesis in the death of a pig.

One warm afternoon in Maine, Andy's pig failed to appear for supper. As Andy wrote, "When a pig (or a child) refuses supper, a chill wave runs through a household." Andy worried.

When he awoke the next morning, his handyman was already digging the grave.

Although death was part of life on the farm, the death unsettled Andy. He looked for redemption--he wanted to find some way to save a pig's life..... But by what miracle on a farm could a pig's life be saved?

By virtue of his joyful childhood at home and at his beloved lake in Maine, big-city writer Andy White was in touch with the land, the people, and especially the animals he knew as a child, and out of these memories and a magical imagination White created two other classic novels for young people, Stuart Little and The Trumpet of the Swan.

Although his books for children were few, being a writer who said "I believed in the goodness of the word," White wrote voluminously, working at the New Yorker from 1925 to 1982, and saving most of the letters he received and sent, latter collected in Letters of E. B. White and co-authored the perennial best-seller, the American writing guide familiar to most college and graduate school scholars, Strunk and White's The Elements of Style, Fourth Edition.

E, B. White was quite a prolific and wide-ranging writer, but it is his work for children which secures his place in literature, and it is those gently redemptive stories that reach down to the very heart of life--justice, love, honor, and self-sacrifice--that have led to Melissa Sweet's forthcoming Some Writer!: The Story of E. B. White (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016).

Author-illustrator Sweet is one of the masters of the art of the collaged illustration, and E. B. White's voluminous output, lovingly saved by his family, becomes the stuff of her illustrations and the source of her inspired narrative, built around the framework of his three seminal children's novels, which have produced what we can only call some biography.  It is a gloriously visual and moving memoir, in which Sweet often allows White's own voice tell his own story,  Much is of that story is told in the layered illustrations which combine old photos, Sweet's own drawings, bits of letters, vintage supplies--gummed labels, folders, typed letters--and most importantly, samples of White's early drafts in his own hand and typewritten, which show how a great author works to hone his language to a simple perfection.

Sweet's illustrations are softly lovely and perfectly fitted to her text, written to the tune of White's own immediate and intimate style. Each page is a work of art in itself, enticing the reader to spend time taking it all in and enabling even the reluctant reader to understand what lies behind the love of words that enables a writer to share his memories and thoughts with the world. This biography would be wonderful used in conjunction with a classroom novel study of one of White's books.

One of publisher Houghton Mifflin Harcourt's strong suits is their outstanding nonfiction for young readers, and Some Writer!: The Story of E. B. White is a winner in several ways, for its lovely text, as a biography, as an illustrated work, and as a solid biography of a significant twentieth-century American writer, with solid backmatter in the form of a timeline, notes, bibliography, and index.

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