Children’s book author and illustrator Melissa Sweet signs a copy of her biography of E.B. White, “Some Writer!” ISLANDER PHOTO BY MARK GOOD

E.B. White is ‘Some Writer!’

Millions of children have delighted in reading about the unlikely friendship between Wilbur the pig and Charlotte the spider in “Charlotte’s Web.” But how many young readers know the story behind the author, Elwyn Brooks White, who was better known as E.B. White? Thanks to a new biography by Melissa Sweet, that should change.

“Some Writer! The Story of E.B. White” traces White’s life and work through easily readable text, copious illustrations and snippets of White’s own writing.

Sweet, who lives in Portland, is an author and illustrator of children’s books. She wrote and illustrated the Sibert Medal award-winning “Balloons over Broadway” and illustrated two Caldecott Honor-winning books, “A River of Words” and “The Right Word: Roget and His Thesaurus.”

Last week, Sweet was at the Tremont Consolidated School, the final stop in a tour of schools on six islands that began Oct. 6 on North Haven. The tour was sponsored by Island Readers and Writers.

Taking a break from talking with students, Sweet said she began working on the book four years ago and completed it in January. The publisher, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, released “Some Writer!” in September.

A New Yorker by birth, White, who died in 1985, later became a resident of Hancock County. He and his family bought a farm in the town of Brooklin on the Blue Hill Peninsula. That farm became the inspiration for “Charlotte’s Web” and many of White’s essays.

About a year into researching her book, Sweet decided to contact White’s granddaughter, Martha White, who still lives in Maine. Sweet generously was given unprecedented access to the writer’s archives.

“I had access to his letters, things that never had been published before,” Sweet said. “What was so exciting was there was so much material.”

The wealth of material made for a much different book than she had intended to write.

“It gave me the freedom to create the book I wanted to write,” Sweet said.

Sweet said she made the decision early on to use quotes from White’s writing in her book.

“He’s saying it better than I can say it, so why not use his words,” she explained.

That decision led to another involving the look of the book.

White wrote using a manual typewriter. Sweet got her own antique typewriter and began to type out White’s quotes. The distinct typeface became a visual element for the book.

“I started to make the art around that,” Sweet said.

The title of “Some Writer!” is adapted from a line in “Charlotte’s Web” in which Charlotte refers to Wilbur as “Some pig.” The book, however, doesn’t focus exclusively on White’s children’s books. White’s childhood, his education, jobs – including his work for the “New Yorker” – friendships and family life are covered extensively.

“I feel like I touched on so many parts of his life,” Sweet said. “I don’t think we left out anything.”

Sweet said she hopes her young readers get an appreciation for how hard White worked to perfect his prose.

“He was one of those writers who really worked at his craft,” she said.

The book uses some of White’s drafts that include his edits to illustrate the work that went into the finished copy. One example she provides is of the first sentence in “Charlotte’s Web.” White composed four first sentences before settling on “Where’s Papa going with that ax?” more than a year after he penned the first of those sentences.

The message, Sweet said, is that “nobody gets it right the first time.”

White, too, wrote rhythmically, Sweet said. “He had an ear for writing; he maintained he wrote by ear.”

In speaking with the students at Tremont and the other schools, Sweet said she talks about the process of writing the book along with telling White’s story. She hopes her visit spurs students to search out other biographies.

“I hope they’ll pick up this book or any biography and take it further,” she said. “There’s a story behind everything.”

Along with the Tremont school, Island Readers and Writers sponsored Sweet’s visits to schools on Great Cranberry Island, Swans Island, North Haven, Deer Isle and Vinalhaven. According to executive director Jan Coates, funding for the visits came from the Maine Community Foundation and private donations.

Mark Good

Mark Good

Reporter at Mount Desert Islander
Mark Good

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