Caldecott Honor winner Melissa Sweet’s joy for her work is evident when you crack open any of her books, but she’s feeling especially grateful about the journey to her newest one, Some Writer! “I feel incredibly lucky,” she tells me via phone, “and I felt that the whole way through. It was a gift as an artist and writer to be able to spend this much time with that material. What an amazing opportunity!”
It’s an E.B. White biography like no other, with original artwork, letters and family photos, as well as warm and detailed collages in Sweet’s signature style woven throughout the book. Sweet wrote it with the approval of White’s granddaughter Martha, whom she also consulted during her research, and whom she knew even before embarking on the project. “Martha lives in the same town [in Maine],” Sweet says. “We see each other at our tiny Memorial Day parade. We exchanged ideas, and I had a lot of questions for her that only she could answer. She was so incredibly gracious and generous that, without her, I’m not even sure I would have done the book, because I had a vision and she supported that vision.”
Sweet’s writing is reverent and engaging, telling White’s story from birth (1899) to death (1985) and focusing primarily on his adult writing life: his work for The New Yorker; The Elements of Style, written with William Strunk Jr.; and his three popular children’s novels, Stuart Little, Charlotte’s Web and The Trumpet of the Swan. Sweet’s textured watercolor collages incorporate photos, letters and items that held great meaning in White’s life. “I felt it was such a visual life that there was no other way to do it,” she explains. “This could have been an unillustrated biography, I suppose, but I saw it more as a merging of a picture book and a nonfiction biography.”
Sweet’s research for the book spanned roughly three years. “At first, to be honest,” she says, “you don’t even know exactly what you’re looking for. You just want every word, every article, anything he wrote or was written about him.”
About a year into her research, Sweet went to Cornell University Library to see the E.B. White Collection, which she found thrilling. In Maine, she enjoyed tracking down small details: At the Keeping Society of Brooklin, she met a woman whose grandmother cooked for the White family. “You just never know what you’re going to find,” Sweet says, “and how it makes you feel—and whether or not you can use it—but it does make you feel that you’re getting to know the family more intimately when you go to places like that.”
Illustration copyright © 2016 by Melissa Sweet, with permission from HMH.
While pondering the book’s overall design and crafting it for the better part of a year, Sweet knew she had a “grand opportunity to show small details or a sense of place. I was able to go to the barn [that inspired Charlotte’s Web], and it was just so filled with stuff, materials that seemed exactly right. All those little bits of wires and screws and bolts, those things you find in a barn, made sense to me, artistically. That’s all I really had, that gut feeling that these are the right materials.”
In the chapter on The Trumpet of the Swan, Sweet includes a collage of a trumpeter swan by John James Audubon and a map of Montana, where part of White’s novel takes place. Sweet points out, “Keen readers will remember at the beginning of Some Writer! that White took a road trip and went through Montana. I didn’t have to go back and say, ‘He had been in Montana in his early 20s,’ but I can reference it and readers can find out more if they want to. That’s an example of bringing in those visual elements that tell the story better than I can with the words.”
Sweet is eager to share the book with young readers. You don’t have to go too far into The Elements of Style, she tells me, to realize that what he and Strunk are saying is that anybody can write. “White made me feel like I could be a writer, even though I had no evidence of that. And children could read this biography and say, ‘The things I’m interested in and the things I love about my life are writerly. They’re newsworthy.’ ”
In the immediate future and before the whirlwind of bookstore signings, Sweet will work with Island Readers & Writers, a Maine-based organization that brings writers to islands where children don’t typically receive visiting authors. She’ll participate in community reads, plays and more, at four to five islands in the state. “I’ll be going to islands where some of [the schools] are just a one-room schoolhouse with a dozen kids,” she says. “I’m so excited. I think E.B. White would like this.”
But for now, she’s relaxing in what she’s named Wilbur, a replica of the first boat White ever built. Sweet’s husband made it for her in the midst of her research. “That is the only boat we have that doesn’t leak,” she says with a laugh. “That was an amazing gift. What a good husband, right?”
Julie Danielson features authors and illustrators at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, a children’s literature blog.