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Melissa Sweet has illustrated biographies of a number of historical figures — Horace Pippin (A Splash of Red), William Carlos Williams (A River of Words), Peter Mark Roget (The Right Word), John James Audubon (The Boy Who Drew Birds), Clara Lemlich (Brave Girl) — and won the Sibert Medal for Balloons over Broadway, her account of Tony Sarg and his essential contribution to the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. With Some Writer!: The Story of E. B. White, Sweet moves beyond the picture book to create a full-length (160-page) biography from an impressive marriage of her own talents and those of the master prose stylist himself.
Roger Sutton: So, I think I want to start with my confession to the world.
Melissa Sweet: I like this.
RS: I have never read anything by E. B. White beyond Charlotte’s Web and The Elements of Style. Tell me about your E. B. White history.
MS: True confessions?
MS: My reading was the same. I had dipped into Letters of E. B. White a number of years ago, but my go-to book of his is The Elements of Style. The instant I had the idea for this project I went to the library and got his audiobooks, put them in my car. The journey began that way. But I hadn’t read his entire catalog.
RS: Had you read Charlotte’s Web?
MS: Yes, but many years ago. When I first began this project I realized that, between my studio and my house, I had seven or eight copies of The Elements of Style. There was one by my bed, one in the living room, one in the kitchen…
RS: Wait a minute. You made your decision to do Some Writer! based entirely on The Elements of Style?
MS: Pretty much.
RS: Wow. In for a penny.
MS: I love doing biographies because as an illustrator there’s so much room to portray information in different ways, like maps and charts and photographs, that help further the story without the text having to be so elaborate. So I thought, if I could do a book about anyone, who would it be? And E. B. White popped into my mind. His life was rich and varied, and I knew it was going to be an amazing adventure. I went straight home and opened up the Letters of E. B. White. The letters themselves are punctuated by a series of essays setting up those chapters in his life. It gives a sense of where he was in the world and what he was working on. Those essays are wonderful, as are the letters. Not only are they so beautiful and so varied and so well written, they are also very accessible. I saw them as an opportunity for kids to discover his writing, his poetry, the pieces from The New Yorker, his essays, etc., not just his three children’s books.
RS: You really have him all the way around. How did you get a grip on all this material, to decide what to include and what not to include?
MS: I began with a timeline, which things happened when. When he worked for The New Yorker, when he came to Maine — all of those questions that popped into my mind. What were the names of all of his dogs? Everything went on the timeline. The point of using his writings was to further my own text. If I came across an essay or a letter that said something more succinctly, more clearly, more lyrically than I could say it, then of course I wanted to use E. B. White’s writing as opposed to my own. When you come to one of his essays interspersed into my text, it brings you further into his life. There was a tremendous amount of his writing to put aside, but there were also pieces that came to the top right away, and those were the ones I would put on my timeline. The ones that hit home were the ones to use.
For the children’s books, I picked a passage from each one that was, for me, the essence of that book. I did a lot of listening to his books and rereading them. When you go over the material so many times, you process it in baby steps. You get the big picture, and then you synthesize it down.
RS: How did you decide which type of media to use to convey a particular piece of information? We have your text, we have quotes from other writers, we have quotes from White himself, photographs, paintings, collage. How did you make those choices?
MS: Adding his quotes to my text was done early on, because they did fit so beautifully. Can I point one out?
MS: The first one we come to starts, “As a child, I was frightened but not unhappy.” That was part of a much longer essay than we’re seeing here. But that description of his life — “there were backyards and stables and grape arbors” — he’s saying it so clearly and beautifully that there was no need for me to try to re-create that within my text. Instead I just gave him the stage to show how he talked about his life at this moment.
RS: This quote is a good example, too, of how he wrote so simply. If you attempted to paraphrase it, the only way you could do so would be to plagiarize it.
MS: Right. The book isn’t crammed with his quotes. You come upon them now and again within the text of Some Writer!, and I think it makes for an engaging way to get to know White as an author. For the photos it was the same. You turn the page and there he is canoeing on Belgrade Lake as a kid. That’s the canoe his father gave him.
RS: Did you ever give up doing your own painting in favor of a photograph?
MS: Yes, I did, absolutely. The photos were really beautiful. They told a whole other story. Like seeing him in Seattle dressed in his suit — and bow tie, as a matter of fact. The photos show more about him than my illustration could.
RS: How did you decide when it was time for a painting by you?
MS: For some parts of his life — for instance in the chapter about The New Yorker — there weren’t that many photographs I could use. I deliberated. There were some places where photographs might have worked that I did end up illustrating. And a painting by me always accompanies a quote. I illustrated White’s quotes, and then to identify them in the text I typed them up on a manual typewriter, with a reference to where they came from, the title, the date, so readers could find more if they chose to. I wanted to anchor those quotes in time somehow.
RS: The whole bibliographic apparatus of this book is amazing. Not just the way you source the quotes within the text itself, but all the appended material. That really shows a lot about how this book was put together.
MS: The structure of this book, all the organizational choices, happened before I got too far into the art. I sat down with the designers and said: here are the elements that are going to be used — the photographs, the manuscripts, the quotes.
RS: “Here are all the elements that are gonna be used. You’d better sit down.”
MS: No kidding. When I do a biography, I identify one thing that is the essence of someone’s story. With Roget (The Right Word) it was his lists. With Tony Sarg in Balloons over Broadway it was movement. To my mind, this whole book was about a manual typewriter and everything that happened on it. To sit down and type up White’s writing on a manual typewriter was essential for me to get to know him, to feel what that feels like, and to slow down. I wanted to make use of the manual typewriter that way, but also with the chapter headings — for which I used physical typewriter keys — and with various parts of the typewriter throughout the book. One of the designers said to me, “Kids don’t know what a manual typewriter even looks like, let alone how it works.”
RS: So you show them that right at the beginning.
RS: Which White book should I read now?
MS: I think you should read Letters of E. B. White. That’s an autobiography for sure. It’s a beautiful thing — not only for the content of the letters, but the fact that he had the foresight to keep these letters, to type some of them up for himself. When he went cross-country, he brought carbon paper.
MS: Yeah, I know. Even the prefaces to the different times of his life say a lot about him and his story. He was a consummate craftsman.
RS: As are you, my dear. In this kind of book, and the kind of art that you do — collage as well as painting — you must have to make an awful lot of decisions and stick to them. If you were the kind of person who couldn’t make up your mind, you’d be in trouble.
MS: Yes. There were countless decisions in making the art. But that’s the best news. If you make a decision and stick with it, then you’re going forward. After the book is done, there are places where I would do it differently, sure, but it’s done, and that’s the beauty of it. Alexander Calder never said, “I think I should do that mobile over.” He just went on to the next one.
MS: And he was having fun. You’ve got to have fun. That’s part of it too. This book was a pure pleasure for me. Look at the material. Look what I got to do.
More on Melissa Sweet from The Horn Book
- Happy 20th Anniversary, Roger Sutton! A bow-tie tribute from Melissa Sweet and others
- Reviews of select books written and/or illustrated by Melissa Sweet
- Five Questions for Melissa Sweet
- Horn Book Magazine Q/A
- Roger’s “Live Five” interview with Melissa Sweet
- Anne Carroll Moore’s 1952 take-down of Charlotte’s Web and The Horn Book Magazine‘s review