Melissa Sweet had been actively searching for an idea worthy of a new book when it came to her as she was walking her dogs in her hometown of Rockport, Maine, a picturesque harbor town. She’d had great success with picture book biographies, winning Caldecott Honors for her mixed-media illustrations in The Right Word: Roget and His Thesaurus and A River of Words: The Story of William Carlos Williams (both written by Jen Bryant and published by Eerdmans). She’d also won the Sibert Medal for Balloons over Broadway (HMH), a book she both wrote and illustrated, about Tony Sarg, the puppeteer who launched Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade into the air.
She needed a new subject who would engage her as fully as Roget, Williams, and Sarg had. “E.B. White popped into my brain,” Sweet says, “and I immediately knew I wanted to write about him.”
Almost simultaneously, Sweet shuddered at what she’d be taking on—a biography of the legendary, beloved writer, who casts a large shadow not only over the literary community in Maine and New England but over the entire world of letters; the author of Charlotte’s Web and Stuart Little, the New Yorker staff writer, and the coauthor with William Strunk Jr. of The Elements of Style. “I don’t mean to be glib,” she says. “I have had a lot of training on how to do research, but I did think, there is no way I can do this book, before I did it.” As it turned out, she couldn’t not do it. “Once I pulled down my copy of The Letters of E.B. White and began reading, I was gone—hook, line, and sinker.”
That was four years ago. What began as an idea for a picture book soon exceeded the bounds of the format. “We thought at first, we can go to 40 pages,” recalls Ann Rider, Sweet’s editor at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. “But it quickly became apparent that there was just too much good content to squeeze into a picture book, and that the right audience for the book was slightly older anyway. It was kids who were reading or had already read Charlotte’s Web.”
Some Writer! (HMH, Oct.) grew into a 176-page full-blown biography, illustrated with Sweet’s signature watercolors and collage art, excerpts from White’s personal letters and early drafts of his novels, and family photographs and ephemera—a treasure trove of rare materials, some of which have never been published before. In a bit of serendipity, Martha White, E.B.’s granddaughter and the literary executor of his estate, also lives in Rockport.
“I had been working on the book for a year, feeling my way, and knowing I wanted to use a lot of [White’s] quotes, portions of his letters, letting him set the stage as much as I could,” Sweet says. “So I thought, I should call Martha and ask her how one goes about getting permission to use his words.”
The two met at Sweet’s studio and hit it off at once. “She understood what I was attempting to do,” Sweet says, “and as she was leaving, she said: ‘By the way, I have some vintage home movies and lots of scrapbooks. Would you be interested in seeing them?’ ”
“It was like Melissa had been given the keys to the kingdom,” Rider says.
White’s Idyllic Childhood
Elwyn Brooks White was born in 1899 in Mount Vernon, N.Y. His father, Samuel, rose from errand boy at a piano manufacturer to president of the company. His mother, Jessie, was the daughter of Scottish-American painter William Hart.
White was the youngest of six children; his family, he wrote, was “a small kingdom unto ourselves.” His father recited limericks at the dinner table, inviting his children to supply the last lines. His mother raised chickens in the backyard. (Later in life, White wrote the introduction to a book on chicken husbandry, A Basic Chicken Guide for the Small Flock Owner.) All through elementary school, White’s dog, Mac, met him at the same spot for the walk home—“[a] service he thought up himself,” White wrote in his essay collection One Man’s Meat. “A boy doesn’t forget that sort of association.”
Unaccountably, White’s family called him neither Elwyn nor Brooks but En as a child. (His older brother Stan was called Bun, because he could wiggle his nose like a bunny, Sweet reports.) Later, at Cornell University, where White fatefully became a mentee of English professor Strunk, he was renamed Andy. (It had been a long-standing tradition at the school to confer the name Andy on everyone with the surname White in honor of Cornell’s founder, Andrew Dickson White.) “From then on,” Sweet writes, “to friends and family, Elwyn White was Andy White.”
White wrote often of his idyllic youth in Westchester County. “If an unhappy childhood is indispensable for a writer, I am ill-equipped: I missed out on all that.” But he also admitted that being the youngest in a large family could be isolating. He took to writing early “to assuage my uneasiness and collect my thoughts, and I was a busy writer long before I went into long pants.”
The biggest crisis of White’s childhood—an allergy to pollen—actually produced a life-changing benefit. A doctor prescribed dousing White’s head in cold water every morning as a cure. White’s father, who had recently visited his older sons at a camp in Belgrade Lakes, Maine, thought the clear air and cold water might help his youngest. August in Maine became a family tradition. Sweet reproduces portions of the handmade brochure White sent to a friend who was coming to visit him, promoting life at “one of the most beautiful states in the Union... and the most beautiful of the lakes in Maine.”
Condensing “Millions of Words”
Armed with so much information, memorabilia, and “the millions of words” White himself wrote, Sweet at first felt overwhelmed. Rider counseled her to take small steps and offered loose deadlines. “She’d say, ‘Why don’t you start with just the chapter headings?’ ” Sweet recalls. There was basic biographical information she needed to include, but she was most interested in drilling down to the origin stories of his novels. “What information got him to Stuart Little? Where did it come from and how did it unfold?” she wanted to know.
Sweet unearthed a coincidence when reading an article on the history of St. Nicholas magazine, in which White had published poems and stories as an adolescent. His future wife, Katharine Sergeant Angell, the New Yorker’s fiction editor, had also published in St. Nicholas as a girl, including a story she wrote about finding a spider’s nest. “It just gave me chills,” Sweet says, “to imagine they both had this connection to spiders.”
After distilling all the information Sweet had collected to a manageable amount, she then had to think about how best to organize it. Her specialty is presenting facts in varied forms—“I love portraying information in an atypical way,” she says. “Instead of just words, I want charts and diagrams and legends.” (One legend, attached to a map detailing White’s perambulations west after college (see below), reveals he received $25 in Minneapolis for winning a newspaper contest that required furnishing the last line of a limerick.)
To offset White’s quotations from Sweet’s own text in the finished book, she procured a 1940s-era manual typewriter—“a beauty,” she says, “the Mustang of typewriters”—and typed out his words herself. “It slowed me down so much but it turned out to be a good thing, because it helped me get really familiar with his writing, and because [the typewriter] didn’t work perfectly at all,” Sweet notes. “The font is really crazy. It’s consistently off but the imperfections mean it’s not flat on the page and that was what I wanted.”
Sweet also painted certain scenes from his life and created the backgrounds over which White’s quotations and family photographs were layered. She created collages with found objects from the world he inhabited—a Moxie soda-bottle cap (“Mr. White bought a case... assuring his family that the new drink Coca-Cola would never be as popular”), boat ropes, leaves, eggs, pencils, rulers, postmarked stamps. “Your eye begins to train you that there is nothing too weird to put in a collage,” she says.
When Sweet was unsure of a detail, she relied on Martha. Did White have a mustache in the 1930s? Was he in Maine around this time? When she was unsure of her words, she turned to the subject himself. “Strunk and White was the book I went to when I wrote my first book,” Sweet says. “I have one by my bed, one in the studio. I probably have six or seven copies. [The book] made me feel that [White] thought anybody could write and surely if I followed his advice, I could do it.”
At the end of Charlotte’s Web, Wilbur muses on his spider friend, concluding that “she was in a class by herself.” The same could be said of Sweet’s book. It’s not a picture book, nor a straight biography, but a hybrid volume of unique design that brims with color and interesting visuals and tells an arresting story of a man in love with his wife, his child, his dogs, and the world.
“Editors have to read projects over and over again, and every single time I read the part where his wife dies, I cried,” Rider says. “That’s Melissa’s power to make us really feel for him and [it] shows the deep, deep affection she has for him as well. I don’t think she realized just how much work this was going to be going into it, but I definitely think she found her voice.”