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Some Writer!

some-writerEach year there is a book I see early in the season that sticks with me. This year it was Some Writer!: The Story of E. B. White by Melissa Sweet. Yes, that Melissa Sweet. The one who wrote or illustrated Balloons Over Broadway, The Right Word, A River of Words, and a whole lot of other books.

Here is where I normally make the case that committees are going to recognize this art as familiar and that committees love to see and talk about new styles, new artists, new media, anything NEW. I would also remind you that the committee can only talk about books that are published in the same year. But still…

I just can’t get this one off my mind. I just love it. It did not hurt that The Horn Book asked me to review it (here). I was even more smitten, even after reading it and examining it over and over.

It’s fair to say that White’s Charlotte’s Web and Stuart Little are probably read aloud to more children than any other chapter book. At my own school, White is read aloud in kindergarten, first, and second grades. In fourth grade, every student reads Charlotte’s Web in great detail. And we are not even New Englanders! At least two versions of Charlotte have been made into movies, and the children’s theater script is a favorite for middle schoolers to perform. The point is, E. B. White is a household name for the elementary set.

So White was a great subject for Melissa Sweet to write about. She loves her subject, and each page reflects that love. Her collage style, filled with snippets of White’s text, small paintings, photos, sheet music, handwriting and gorgeous typography, rewards the meticulous reader who can return to each page and discover something new about the author.

This is a book where design is the star of the show. Whenever Sweet is quoting from White, she uses a typewriter typeface, reminding the reader that White composed his work on a typewriter. Sweet was especially lucky because she had access to a treasure trove of photographs of White, his family, and the Maine farm. These photos are critical to the book’s success, allowing White enthusiasts that wonderful “aha” feeling of recognition. I showed the rope swing photo to a ten-year-old who had just finished reading Charlotte’s Web and she actually teared up!

I could talk about each of Some Writer‘s 161 pages, but really I want to ask a question (okay, a bunch of questions).

Is this a picture book? Is it an illustrated book? Would this be better considered for the Newbery Award? Or do you think it will be discussed by both committees? I am quite sure the Sibert committee will spend lots of time with it as well.

When it comes to the Caldecott committee, it will have to talk about this (and all the books) with the criteria in front of them. And, though it will be an easy argument to talk about the beauty and care that Melissa Sweet has poured into her newest offering, it might be harder to discuss this part of the definitions section of the manual:

  1. A “picture book for children” as distinguished from other books with illustrations, is one that essentially provides the child with a visual experience. A picture book has a collective unity of story-line, theme, or concept, developed through the series of pictures of which the book is comprised.

It’s easy to identify ten to twenty truly excellent books from all the books published in America. It’s very challenging to narrow that number down to one winner and a few honor books. That requires hours of discussions, sometimes about rather esoteric ideas like picture book vs. illustrated book … what do you think?

 

Robin Smith About Robin Smith

Robin Smith is a second-grade teacher at the Ensworth School in Nashville, Tennessee. She is a reviewer for Kirkus and The Horn Book Magazine and has served on multiple award committees.

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Comments

  1. Deborah Taylor says:

    As I said in my comments about this book at CLNE last weekend, I have spent a lot of time with Sweet’s work and this just blew me away. Despite that familiarity, I still found freshness in this piece. I was struck by the skill in balancing the text and the design features. This is simply masterful!

  2. You’re right, this book is so wonderful! I borrowed it from the library this past week just so *I* could read it. My kids weren’t ready to sit through a biography (even though we LOVED reading aloud Charlotte’s Web last year), but it was a lovely experience for me. They liked the illustrations, of course.
    Melissa Sweet is one of my all time favorite illustrators, and so to read this lovely bio about one of my favorite authors was just such a treat. Rooting for this one for any award…but I understand the hesitation for ‘what type IS it?’. I think it’s terrific, terrific, terrific.

    (Okay, sorry. Had to!)
    Sarah M

  3. Robin Smith Robin Smith says:

    Sarah,
    I love that ending! (“terrific, terrific, terrific”) If I had thought of it, I would have used it! (Rooting? I love that word too!)
    I’m not sure how the photographs will be evaluated by the committee as they were not taken by Sweet. And, they are such an important part of the book.
    No matter–I find myself thinking about this book over and over and I already know many people who would love to have it as a holiday book!

    Deb,
    I know you were on SIbert for Balloons over Broadway and have served on Newbery. Don’t you think this is one that could find love from a lot of places come January? It just seems like such a special book…

  4. Deborah Taylor says:

    I definitely can see this getting lots of attention. Sweet has shown time and again how to incorporate the essence of creative people in her bios and this one just goes beyond!

  5. Angela Reynolds says:

    While I simply adore this book, I would argue that it is more of an illustrated book than a picture book. The illustrations are beautiful, they add to the text, they take us deeper into the story– but the text is so important, so well-crafted, that I almost think it is more the star than the illustrations — which is hard to say in a Melissa Sweet book. Would love to be a spider on the wall to hear the discussion around the Caldecott table on this one!

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