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Sunday, February 4, 2018

Beautiful Book Introduces ‘Charlotte’s Web’ Author to Kids

Some Writer! The Story of E.B. White
Written and illustrated by Melissa Sweet
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, New York, 2016

“Some Writer! The Story of E.B. White” by Melissa Sweet is a beautiful picture book for middle grade readers. Children will enjoy the story and the photographs, colorful watercolor paintings, and collage images in this book about a favorite children’s author of the much-loved classics, “Charlotte’s Web,” “Stuart Little,” and “The Trumpet of the Swan.”

The many images give the reader a sense of White’s love of nature and animals, qualities that made him the writer he was. They also give a feel for the different time he lived in, with images of old fashioned manual typewriters, his handwritten and typed letters and notebook pages, and the author from childhood through old age.

Elwyn Brooks knew he was a writer when he was seven or eight years old. He looked at a sheet of paper and thought, “This is where I belong, this is it.” His brother Stan taught him to read when he was five. If he came upon a word he didn’t know, his father made him look it up in the dictionary. At dinner, his dad recited limericks, and the six children (Elwyn was the youngest) would try to finish the last line.

His sweet mother loved gardening and raising baby chicks in Mount Vernon, the New York City suburb where En (as he was called) grew up. En also enjoyed the chicks, as well as lizards, pigeons, and a dog Mac, who met him every day after school.

He was a shy child and remembered being mortified to read a poem out loud in class when he was in first grade. As an adult, he said he was a frightened but happy child. His large family was like a “small kingdom unto ourselves.” His father worked at a piano company, and their home was always well supplied with musical instruments.  “We were practically a ready-made band. All we lacked was talent,” he wrote.

Growing up, Elwyn spent his summers in Maine next to a lake, and he fell in love with the area. For the rest of his life, he would divide his time between New York City and Belgrade Lakes in Maine, where he drew inspiration for his children’s books.

He began writing poems and short stories as a child and published some of them in a children’s magazine. He won prizes for his stories about animals. Some of his childhood writings are included. In high school, he wrote for the school newspaper. Being skinny and small, he didn’t care much for athletics.

Elwyn enjoyed attending Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. Friends gave him the nickname Andy, which stuck for the rest of his life. He became editor of the school newspaper, the “Cornell Sun,” and began to consider writing for a living.

Young people may be surprised to learn that as an adult, Andy primarily worked for the “New Yorker,” writing short pieces for adults. He wrote captions for cartoons, short articles on current events, and humorous column fillers that poked fun at errors and typos in other newspapers and magazines. He published many books for adults, including collections of his “New Yorker” pieces, poems, essays, letters, and “Elements of Style,” a grammar book with his former college professor William Strunk.

Andy met his wife Katherine Sergeant Angell at the “New Yorker,” where she worked as the fiction editor. They married in 1929 when he was 30 and remained married until she died in 1977 after a series of long illnesses. Together they had a son, Joel McCoun.

Andy published his first children’s book, “Stuart Little,’ in 1945, when he was 46. Interestingly, some children’s librarians criticized the book for blurring the line between fantasy and reality. In it, a human couple have a baby who turns out to be a mouse. Some libraries banned it, but children loved it and the book sold 100,000 copies in its first year.

He published “Charlotte’s Web” in 1952 and received a Newberry Honor for the book. Sweet tells about his writing process and includes images of handwritten early drafts and pictures of the illustrator’s early sketches of Charlotte, the spider.

In 1970, Andy published “The Trumpet of the Swan.” Later, the Philadelphia Orchestra set it to music delighting Andy. “What a life I lead!” he said. “How merry! How innocent! How nutty!”

He once said, “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.”

About the Author-Illustrator

Melissa Sweet has illustrated nearly 100 children’s books from board books to picture books and nonfiction titles. Her collages and paintings have appeared in the “New York Times” and Martha Stewart Living, on Madison Park Greetings and Smilebox cards, and on a line of eeBoo toys. She received a Caldecott Honor Medal for a “River of Words” by Jen Bryant and two “New York Times” Best Illustrated citations. She lives on the coast of Maine, not far from E.B. White’s home.

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