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Some Writer!: Melissa Sweet’s 2017 BGHB Nonfiction Honor Speech

It is an honor to be here with my friends and colleagues whose work inspires me. I feel, as E. B. White wrote in Charlotte’s Web, “It is deeply satisfying to win a prize in front of a lot of people.”

When the idea for this book came to me, I kept it to myself like an uncut diamond, but I was dying to share it with my editor, Ann Rider. A few weeks later we met up in Chicago for a conference and shared a cab to our hotel.

That was where I said, “What if my next book were a biography of E. B. White?” Ann didn’t say a word. She reached into her bag and brought out a well-worn copy of Charlotte’s Web. Apparently, she often reads a children’s classic for comfort while traveling, and the fact that it was Charlotte’s Web was an auspicious beginning. From there we set the idea in motion.

Early on I saw myself not so much as the author/illustrator but as a conduit, collating White’s work to uncover not only how he became a writer but why his work still seems so fresh and pertinent today. Since I am a collage artist, this felt like the right remix to tell White’s story, making assemblages until the words and images felt just right, radiant, terrific!

When working on a biography I often look for one word that is the essence of that person. For White it was the word freedom, and freedom for White meant, in part, living life on his own terms and writing what he pleased.

It was said of White that he “never wrote a mean or careless sentence.” His stepson Roger Angell wrote that White

…never wished his readers to think him deeper or wiser than he found himself to be. Relieved of that frightful burden, he got more of himself onto paper in a lifetime than most writers come close to doing. Our knowledge of him seems wonderfully clear, like the view back down a series of steep meadows climbed on a cool day in autumn, and, looking back over that long path, one cannot imagine a leaf or a word that might have made it better.

Indeed, like Charlotte, E. B. White was in a class by himself.

From the January/February 2018 issue of The Horn Book Magazine. For more on the 2017 Boston Globe–Horn Book Awards, click on the tag BGHB17. Also read Melissa Sweet’s 2017 Zena Sutherland Lecture: “To Inform and Delight: The Elements of Story.”

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