New Biography Celebrates E.B. White, Who Really Was 'Some Writer!'
KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:
"Some Writer" - that is the fitting title of a delightful new biography of E.B. White. It's a biography that's made for kids. The book is a collage of letters to and from E.B. White, drafts of his books, family photos and illustrations by the author Melissa Sweet. It's clear Melissa Sweet is as fond of E.B. White as Charlotte was of Wilbur when she spun out Some Pig in White's classic book, "Charlotte's Web." Melissa Sweet is with us now. Welcome to the show.
MELISSA SWEET: Thank you for having me.
MCEVERS: So you open this book with a kind of scientific diagram of a typewriter. What made you want to start there?
SWEET: When I was researching E.B. White, the manual typewriter came up all the time. He used it as a child, all through his life. He had many typewriters. If there was one object that I thought represented E.B. White, it was the manual typewriter. So as a collage artist, I wanted to use the pieces of a typewriter - the keys and the font - and in fact, I typed up all of his quotes on a manual typewriter. So as I - we were designing the book, I had all these elements. And the designer said to me, yes, but kids don't know what a manual typewriter is.
SWEET: So we did this infographic at the beginning to show them how a manual typewriter works. And then everything from then on will make sense, so...
MCEVERS: Right. I was - 'cause I'm going to show this to - now that I'm finished with the book, I'm going to show it to my 7-year-old and let her read it. And she's going to be like, Mom, what's that?
MCEVERS: I've never seen that thing for (laughter). I mean, what did you learn about E.B. White in this process that you didn't know before, that maybe a lot of people didn't know before?
SWEET: I was curious from the start about how he wrote his children's books. And each one was - surprised me - that "Stuart Little" came to him in a dream...
SWEET: ...That he had on a train. He woke up, and he wrote it all down. That was - that was the beginning of "Stuart Little."
SWEET: That on the farm - so the beginning of "Charlotte's Web" was because he had a sick pig that died, and E.B. White wanted redemption. He wanted to find a way to save a pig's life. And not long after, he saw a spider spin a egg sack.
SWEET: Those two divergent experiences became "Charlotte's Web," and so it was...
MCEVERS: And he brought the egg sack. He actually clipped the egg sack, put it in a little box.
SWEET: Right. He actually brought it to his home and put it on his dresser. He put it in a candy box with airholes.
SWEET: Within a few weeks, his dresser was filled with these little, teeny spiders, make - spinning webs to his brush, his comb, his mirror, so Charlotte adapted to that.
MCEVERS: Right. And he was - he was trying to figure out how to save a pig's life. And then at some point, it came to him - could a spider save a pig's life?
MCEVERS: And here we are.
MCEVERS: You show some of the early drafts of "Charlotte's Web." You make it very clear how many different beginnings that story had until he finally arrived at - where's Papa going with that ax? - I think is basically the first line.
SWEET: That's the first line. Right. And that was a great thing to be able to have those manuscript pages to show because that is one of the most famous first lines in children's literature. And it's such an arresting thing for a children's book to begin that way, but you sense his process of revision and how dedicated he was to it.
MCEVERS: And if you're a kid reading that, you see, OK, it's all right to try and fail a few times.
SWEET: Rewriting is pretty important. Yeah.
MCEVERS: Yeah. I mean, when you do a collage like this, it's definitely different than just sitting down to kind of write the definitive, you know, big biography. You sort of had to figure out how to distill his life in all these different ways - in words and pictures. And was that more difficult, do you think, than just writing a straight biography?
SWEET: The trick was that there was so much information. So the fun is that we find ways to make it consistent throughout. So all the archival pieces are on, for instance, a light green paper. Hopefully, the reader goes along and doesn't notice the design so much, but just that the book flows. The design of it makes it like a jigsaw puzzle. And to be honest, I think it's the most fun part.
Once you know what you want to say, and you have all this material, fitting it together, finding the right pieces is really fun. And it's akin to making one collage. It's the same. You're pushing pieces around until you hit on - you don't want to touch it. You've nailed it.
MCEVERS: That was Melissa Sweet on her new illustrated biography, "Some Writer: The Story Of E.B. White." Thank you so much.
SWEET: Thank you for having me.
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