Some Writer! The Story of E. B. White by Melissa Sweet. 2016. Afterword by Martha White. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
Genre: Biographic chapter book
Levels: Like White’s own work, this book speaks to virtually all ages. It is written for mid-elementary and up, but the illustrations will make it appealing even to very young readers, and the details will intrigue everyone, including adults.
Features: Irresistible illustrations in Melissa Sweet’s inimitable style; carefully selected family photos; telling and fascinating examples of White’s original handwritten drafts showing his notes and revisions; exceptionally thorough timeline, complete with book covers and other illustrations; a touching Afterword by White’s granddaughter Martha; revealing author’s notes from Melissa Sweet, detailing her hands-on research for the book; bibliography and index.
“I fell in love with the sound of an early typewriter and have been stuck with it ever since” (1). This opening line from Melissa Sweet’s reverent and captivating look at the life of beloved author E. B. White touched a nerve. I too grew up loving the sound of a manual typewriter. My father, a court reporter, typed his own depositions until he could afford a stenographer (that, eventually, became my first job). When he replaced his old Remington, he gave it to me. I was about seven. And though I didn’t type very fast at first, I was enchanted by the way this machine transformed the look of my letters and stories. Of course, electric typewriters and computers came along and made everything easier. But only someone who has hammered out copy on an old Remington or Royal or Corona can appreciate how nostalgic the very sight of a typewritten letter makes us old-time writers feel. You don’t have to love typewriters, however, to appreciate Sweet’s book. It’s one of the finest biographies I’ve ever read.
From cover to cover, Some Writer! is positively gorgeous. Before I could settle down enough to read, I leafed through it several times, just soaking in the beauty. Sweet is a gifted, highly original artist, and her work is showcased here with a brilliant layout. It’s like walking through a literary garden. Pages feature a mix of Sweet’s endearing and folksy style, together with handwritten copy, Garth Williams’ charming and often hilarious drawings of the famous spider Charlotte, irresistible family photos—the kind you’d frame if they were yours—and a delightful blend of modern fonts with the occasional letter or memorable quotation written in the quirky, irregular type of the old Corona.
The text itself, minus the writer’s notes and other extras at the end, runs just over 130 pages, and they speed by. This book is everything you want a biography to be: not a stiff march through a dry fact-encumbered history, but an intimate peek into the everyday doings of someone we already love through his work. In one delightful anecdote, we discover that the White family thought of themselves as “city people,” but spent summers at Belgrade Lakes in New York, where Elwyn’s father rented two cabins. “The brothers,” Sweet tells us, “studied tortoises, tadpoles, and toads.” Regardless of weather, the whole family would crowd into the small skiff they named Jesse (after White’s water-fearing mother) and head for town. There, Elwyn’s father would buy a case of Moxie soda, “assuring his family that the new drink Coca-Cola would never be as popular as Moxie” (10). Little details like this—White’s father viewing Coca-Cola as the newfangled drink—make us feel as close to Elwyn as if we were attending a family picnic at the lake.
Other vignettes reveal that White was a good student, an avid reader, a musician (of sorts), a painfully shy person (something that remained true into his adult years), a lover of animals big and small, and a self-styled adventurer who loved hiking through the woods or getting out on the water. He began writing at a young age, winning his first literary award before he was ten (20). For years, White had his heart set on attending Cornell, but upon graduating from high school, felt it was his duty to join the Service and fight in World War I. Perhaps it’s lucky for us that the Army rejected him: he was too thin. So—on to Cornell, where he would acquire his life-long nickname Andy, and meet Professor William Strunk, Jr. We all know how that turned out.
To anyone who knew how shy White was, it was no surprise that the only thing he feared more than public speaking was talking to girls—they “terrified him” (19). That all changed, however, when he met Katharine Sergeant Angell. Katharine already had two children from another marriage, but she and White would welcome a third, Joel (called “Joe”), the light of White’s life. He would say at one point, “To a writer, a child is an alibi. If I should never in all my years write anything worth reading, I can always explain that by pointing to my child” (50). Within a short time, he would never need an alibi again.
Reading this book is a supremely joyful experience—one that no fan of E. B. White should miss. Every page brings another delightful discovery. Through Sweet’s words, White emerges as a deeply good person, someone who cared both about people and about the earth itself. He was humble and optimistic, surely two rare qualities these days. And though an indisputable genius, White never craved or sought attention in any form; he was genuinely happy on the farm. He loved children, and admired them for the right reasons—for their intelligence, their sensitivity, their curiosity. White once wrote, “All that I hope to say in books, all that I ever hope to say, is that I love the world. I guess you can find that in there, if you dig around” (128). We don’t need to dig far. That voice that calls to us from the pages of Charlotte’s Web is no put-on; that’s E. B. White himself, as open and honest as the sky. When we lose a writer like White, the books remain as reminders and clues to that person’s innermost mind and heart. No wonder we treasure them. Sweet’s touching tribute makes a fine addition to an already unique collection.
In the Classroom
Sharing the book. You may want to read Some Writer! more than once before sharing it with students. The text is so rich with detail that you simply can’t take it all in at once, and the illustrations add much to both the information and the voice. Looking at the Table of Contents, you’ll see that the book is divided into thirteen chapters, and one chapter is probably enough to share aloud at one time, or to discuss with a small group. Be sure to use a document projector so students do not miss even the tiniest feature of Sweet’s incredible paintings and sketches.
Background. Are your students familiar with E. B. White’s books? Some may have heard Charlotte’s Web, The Trumpet of the Swan, or Stuart Little read at home or school, or perhaps read these books on their own. Talk about what they know now and how they feel about E. B. White’s books. Are any familiar with the book titled The Elements of Style? Show them the books if you have copies. If some or most of your students have not read at least one of White’s books, you may want to choose one to share aloud prior to discussing the biography.
It’s also helpful to students—or any readers—to understand the time in which E. B. White lived. He was born into a very different world in 1899. Give students time to do a little research to learn what life was like in those times. Who was president? What did people do for work—or entertainment? How many attended college? What modern conveniences or appliances did they have? What methods of transportation did they use?
And by the way, what the heck is a typewriter? As I noted in my overview, the book opens with E. B. White expressing his love for the click of the typewriter keys. It would not be surprising if many of your students had no idea what a typewriter is. If you have access to one, bring it into class and let students type on it to feel the effort those keystrokes require compared to today’s turbo-charged keyboards! They may be surprised! Also note how different the print itself looks. It’s not sleek and modern. It’s bumpy and uneven, sometimes blurry in spots. And writers in White’s time could not choose from hundreds of fonts, something we take for granted today. How would it seem to produce important work like a book on this sort of machine? How long would it take—and what if you made a mistake? Could people type 100-120 words a minute on this primitive device? Answer: They could—and did!
Format and genre. This is a biography, something different from an autobiography or memoir. Help your students feel comfortable with these slightly different, but related terms. A biography can be described as an account of a person’s life written by someone else. An autobiography is an account of someone’s life written by the person him- or herself. A memoir is an anecdotal narrative based on firsthand experience. Memoirs often focus on a particular period or periods in a person’s life, and so may or may not be as complete as an autobiography.
Central message. The central message in any biography answers the question, What was ______ really like? Instead of addressing this question all at once at the end of the book, try asking it chapter by chapter as author Melissa Sweet slowly reveals more—and more—about her subject. You might keep a running list of characteristics that describe E. B. White, adding to it as you go. By the way, notice the chapter titles. They’re creative, don’t you think? Do they also provide us with clues about each chapter’s content—and consequently, about White himself? Consider the importance of such clues to a reader. Would chapter titles or subtitles be something your students could use in their own writing to guide readers through a story or discussion?
Showing, not telling. If writing teachers have a favorite mantra, it’s “show, don’t tell.” Yet few things are more difficult to teach than this concept. Look for passages that show us something about E. B. White and his experiences without telling us outright. Consider this passage about a time Elwyn read a poem aloud from a stage in his school:
It had the line Footprints on the sands of time, but Elwyn’s words came out the tands of sime. Other kids started laughing and the moment on stage became even worse than En had imagined it would be. He could not finish. He vowed never to go up on a stage again. (3)
What is the author trying to show us about Elwyn in this passage?
A word about names . . . Notice, by the way, that E. B. White is called “En” here. Throughout his life, he goes by several different names. Have you or any of your students had this experience? Talk about what it is like to have more than one first name or nickname. Should a person be able to choose a favorite? Does E. B. White eventually do this?
Illustrations—and voice. As you go through the book notice the many forms illustrations take, and talk about the “flavor” they give to the narrative. Here are just a few examples:
- Paintings by author/illustrator Melissa Sweet
- Drawings by E. B. White
- Handwritten and typed text
Do the illustrations contribute to the voice of this particular book? In what way? What sort of voice do your students hear in this book? Boisterous? Quiet? Conversational? Comedic? Authoritative? Reverent? Or something else . . .
Do your students find the mix of illustrations (paintings, photos, etc.) appealing? Why? Have they considered mixing different types of illustrations in any of their own written work?
Thinking small. Choosing a topic can be one of the most challenging issues a writer faces. At one point, E. B. White confesses that he finds it satisfying to write about “the small things of the day, the trivial matters of the heart” (37). Your students might feel the same way.
Get them started by modeling the brainstorming and selection of small topics. It’s easy—and your students will love it! Here are a few topics I would list as students look on (and yes, my list changes all the time, and by the time you read this, I’ll have half a dozen new ones I haven’t thought of yet):
- BIG snow—and having too much of a good thing!
- Tips for making really good scones
- Relearning bridge—what’s fun, what’s hard
- How birds stay alive in winter
- How to look better at bowling than you are
- Keeping in touch with friends far away
- What I love about Tana French mysteries
- Why sitcom laugh tracks are annoying
- How long to keep leftovers before you can pitch them without guilt
- Times when it’s simply NOT all right to look at your iPhone
These are little things on my mind right now. Your list won’t look anything like this—naturally. That’s the point. Topic lists are personal because as E. B. White discovered, we do our best writing about things close to our heart.
After modeling your list, break students into small groups and have each group come up with their “top 12 topics.” Share these aloud, then post them. Students can copy favorites into writing journals for later reference.
Where do you get your ideas? This question is a favorite one among students, especially those who have a chance to talk with a published author. Many writers will answer that they do not actually go in search of ideas; rather, ideas come to them—right out of own lives. This is definitely true for E. B. White. Where did White get the idea to write Charlotte’s Web? What about Stuart Little? Be sure students listen carefully for answers to these questions.
The significance of place. We don’t necessarily think of White’s writing as being about “place” per se, but in each of White’s books, setting plays a vital role. Read the description of the barn that opens Chapter 3 of Charlotte’s Web. You’ll see (and feel) at once how critical this setting is to the story that follows. (Note that White almost began the book with this description.) Share this passage aloud with your students. Ask what details they notice and how those details make them feel. What senses does White appeal to in this passage?
In one of the book’s most profound quotations (53), E. B. White tells us he can’t find words to explain what comes over him when he crosses the state line into Maine (the place where, as a boy, he spent summers with his family)—it’s “the sensation of having received a gift from a true love.” Have your students experienced a place that affected them so deeply? Have you? Talk about this. Such places can range from a homey kitchen to an open prairie, from an apartment balcony to a corner coffee shop, bookstore, beach, bridge, attic, treehouse, lake-side hideaway, or anywhere your feet or mind can take you. Discuss one or two places that have had an emotional impact on you. Then give students a chance to come up with one or two of their own, talking with partners to generate ideas. Ask them to pick one place that stands out, and write about it. Remind them that places without names—like the barn from Charlotte’s Web—often make the best choices.
Crafting an Argument: Book Reviews. On pages 68 through 74, Sweet recounts the striking differences between critics’ responses to Stuart Little and students’ responses. Critics were not universally enthusiastic, and some even considered the book inappropriate for school libraries. Children loved it, however, and bombarded White with personal letters that he treasured.
Your students may not agree with the critics about their favorite books, either. Have them search out online reviews for any book they like, checking to see if critics and other readers agree with their point of view. If not, have students write a one-page review, defending their position and including one or two quotations from the book to support their thinking. Consider publishing some reviews online. As an alternative, have students write directly to the author. If you cannot find an online POB or email address, you can reach any author by sending a letter in care of the publisher.
Revising leads. Among the most fascinating parts of Some Writer! is the history of how White struggled to find the most effective opening for Charlotte’s Web. From pages 86 through 92, we learn that he wrote many leads over a period of several months. Share this section aloud with students so they can appreciate how different these leads are—and how hard White worked to get this part right. Notice that he doesn’t just revise the wording. The whole setting and perspective changes from one revision to the next. White began with a very direct lead about Charlotte, then moved to Wilbur, then to the barn itself, and on to Mr. Arable. The lead he settled on for the final draft ranks as one of the strongest in literature. It’s both engaging—and startling. Read it aloud to see if your students agree. Compare the leads (paying close attention to the captions at the bottom of each page), and talk about what changes from one to another, and which lead your students feel works best. What exactly gives a lead the power to capture us as readers?
After discussing White’s examples, have students look for favorite leads from books they love, and read them aloud for the class. Then ask them to review a lead from their own writing and revise it at least twice. Encourage them to make bold changes of the sort E. B. White made to his own writing. Instead of simply changing a word or two, ask them to make each revision distinctly different from all others. When they finish, have them share their three versions with a partner or in a small writing group, and discuss which ones work best—and why.
The nature of revision. In school, we often practice revision as a one-time event. Students write a piece, then at some point revise it—and it’s finished. But clearly for E. B. White, as for nearly all professional writers, revision requires ongoing and repeated efforts, often over a long stretch of time. What does this difference tell us about the true nature of revision? Should this have an impact on the way we teach writing? Discuss this with students.
Hands-on research. In the first part of Chapter 9, we discover how E. B. White learned about spiders. He spent over a year watching them. At one point, he actually kept eggs in a box, waited for the young spiders to hatch, and tracked their first movements. How many writers would take time for all this? And yet, consider how important this hands-on research was to Charlotte’s Web. What if White had tried to write the book without knowing any more about spiders than most of us know?
In addition to the information from Chapter 9, share Sweet’s “Author’s Note” on pages 135-136 aloud with your students. Did Sweet do some hands-on research of her own for this book? Talk about how this form of research differs from looking topics up in books or on the Internet. What makes firsthand research so valuable?
Have your students done any firsthand research of their own? If not, this could be a good time to start! As a class, choose a topic: raising chickens, yoga, hiking, cooking the perfect omelet—anything. Discuss ways a writer can learn about a topic in a personal way—a site visit, interview, observation, etc. Ask students to include at least one form of personal hands-on research next time they are gathering information for a nonfiction piece.
Writing down to children. On page 130, the author quotes E. B. White’s strong views about never writing down to children. Share this paragraph aloud. Then have students write a personal response. Ask volunteers to share their responses. How do your students feel about the point White makes here? What exactly does “writing down” mean, and can your students identify any authors who do this? Why is it important for an author to respect his or her audience—or to think about them at all?
About the Author . . .
Writer and illustrator Melissa Sweet lives with her family on the coast of Maine, near E. B. White’s former home. She has illustrated more than eighty children’s books, including the Caldecott Honor books The Right Word and A River of Words: The Story of William Carlos Williams, both written by Jen Bryant. Her collages and paintings have appeared in the New York Times and Martha Stewart Living, on Madison Park Greetings and Smilebox cards. She also wrote and illustrated Tupelo Rides the Rails; Carmine: A Little More Red, which was a New York Times Best Illustrated Children’s Book; and Balloons Over Broadway, a picture book biography that won the Sibert Medal and was named a 2011 Publishers Weekly Best Nonfiction Picture Book. When she is not in her studio, Melissa can be found taking an art class, hiking with her dogs, or riding her bicycle.
Of her field research, Melissa said this in a 2014 interview: “When I set out, I travel with a small studio: camera, sketchbook, pens and pencils. But oftentimes I get somewhere and it’s more about taking time to soak up what I’m seeing without being too diligent about recording it. The impressions of a place or archival material can be as inspiring as the meticulous details.”
Coming Up on Gurus . . .
Great news! Our book is a reality! Teaching Nonfiction Revision is currently in production with Heinemann, and my wonderful co-author Sneed B. Collard and I are eagerly awaiting release—tentatively scheduled for early fall. This book takes readers inside the thinking of a working professional writer—Sneed. For anyone who still might not know, Sneed has written more than 75 books for young readers, including Pocket Babies and Other Amazing Marsupials, Firebirds, Reign of the Sea Dragons, Teeth, Wings, Sneed B. Collard III’s Most Fun Book Ever About Lizards, and his recently published memoir, Snakes, Alligators and Broken Hearts: Journeys of a Biologist’s Son (reviewed here on sixtraitgurus).
In our new book, Sneed details his tips and strategies for revising nonfiction both concisely and effectively. He’s a seasoned, imaginative writer who knows his stuff and has a lot to say about the craft. He’s also enormously fun to work with. (I have a rule: Never work with someone who has no sense of humor. Sooner or later, you always regret it.)
My part as co-author has been to translate Sneed’s invaluable messages into classroom lessons that teachers can use to help students revise their own nonfiction—with dramatic results. If you teach nonfiction writing, Sneed and I are confident you’ll find Teaching Nonfiction Revision a valuable (not to mention outrageously fun to read) addition to your professional collection. And by the way, my colleague and fellow guru Jeff Hicks has promised to review the book in a future post, and we cannot wait to hear his thoughts. Thank you so much, Jeff! We’ll have more information on the release date as soon as we know it.
Just-for-Fun Book Recommendation: Books for Living by Will Schwalbe
I have a simple way of determining how good a film is: Even before it’s over, I know I’ll watch it again. I judge books the same way. Admittedly, I don’t always read the whole book when I return, but I do return, and that’s the point. Books for Living by Will Schwalbe is one of those books I’ll come back to again and again. Because it’s supremely well written, because it’s a profound, heartfelt and often funny (at times deeply touching) look at the meaning of life, and because author Will Schwalbe responds to some of my own favorite books, including The Girl on the Train, David Copperfield, Wonder, Gift from the Sea, 1984, Song of Solomon, and—one that influenced me immeasurably—Bird by Bird.
Each chapter focuses on one book—26 in all—and how that book affected Schwalbe or shaped his view of life. In addition, each chapter has a theme, inspired by the chosen book. Schwalbe is quick to point out in his introduction that not all the books are his personal favorites, nor would they necessarily make the “greatest books of all time” list:
What follows are stories of books I’ve discovered that have helped me and others in ways big and small with some of the specific challenges of living in our modern world, with all its noise and distractions. (17)
He adds that any reader can make a list like this, and he recommends it because “it’s a path to creating your own personal philosophy” (18).
I couldn’t help noticing what a radical and refreshing departure this is from the usual book reports we so often ask students to do. Why, I thought, couldn’t students take this same approach, writing about books that have moved them deeply and made a difference in how they see things—or books that have helped them navigate a troubled time? Read a selected chapter or two from Books for Living aloud, and I can almost guarantee that your students will want to do this very thing. Of course, this is a wide open prairie-without-fences approach to reading—and writing. Instead of defining those books that we think students should find meaningful, we let them decide that on their own. Maybe that’s wiser than we think, though. As Schwalbe reminds us, the idea that there is a “Ginsu knife” book—the book that can be all things to everyone—is a myth. What is true, however, is that there’s always a Ginsu knife book for each of us for a particular time and situation.
By the way, one of the books Schwalbe discusses is Stuart Little. I highly recommend reading this chapter aloud in conjunction with discussing Melissa Sweet’s book Some Writer! It not only captures the complexity of Stuart’s character, but more important, shows why E. B. White’s work is not only timeless, but also reaches an impressively wide range of readers, from five to ninety five. You’ll love Schwalbe’s book, and I’m betting you’ll want to create, along with your students, a similar book of your own.
Until our next post, please remember . . . Give every child a voice.