IMWAYR: “Some Writer: The Story of E.B. White” by Melissa Sweet


The miracle of a book is a mystery to children. They wonder where books come from. They think authors are, as E.B. White put it, “mythical being[s].” To children, books seem to be conjured out of thin air. Which, in a sense, like a spider’s web itself, they are.

In Some Writer: The Story of E.B. White (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016), Melissa Sweet has woven a miraculous, magical book that peels back a layer of this mystery to reveal the very human side of one of our most mythical authors, E.B. White.


Sweet’s inviting prose and inventive artwork immediately draw readers into White’s world. The illustrations are a hybrid of photos, collage, and watercolors. Sepia-toned photographs of White with his father and brother in Maine are followed by one of Sweet’s appealing watercolors. White’s own description of the scene, from his 1940 essay, “A Boy I Knew,” is typed out on vintage paper using a manual typewriter, serves as a caption. The effect is beguiling. I wanted to be sitting there “at the water’s edge [on] a granite rock upholstered in lichen.”


Drawing extensively on White’s letters and essays, Sweet takes readers from White’s childhood in Mount Vernon, New York to his death in Maine eighty-six years later. As a boy, he was surrounded by words and discovered at an early age that writing helped him “to assuage my uneasiness and collect my thoughts.” Keeping her text focused on how early events in White’s life impacted his development as a writer and his future work, Sweet helps readers see the roots of Stuart Little, Charlotte’s Web, and The Trumpet of the Swan in his life and his early writings.

White’s early poems and stories were published in St. Nicholas Illustrated Magazine for Boys and Girls. Sweet includes copies of these, giving the book the intimate feel of a scrapbook of a beloved relative. Readers will want to savor every page. Glimpses of White’s masterpieces for children are found throughout his life. Sweet writes about White’s time as a camp counselor at Camp Otter in Canada, and we learn about his road trip across the country in a Model T after graduating from Cornell.

Each major work, as well as The Elements of Style, is given its own chapter. We learn of the difficulties White had finishing Stuart Little, the criticism it received from librarians, and the love lavished on it by children. Sweet describes in detail how White’s farm in Maine, his doomed pig, and a spider’s egg sac coalesced into Charlotte’s Web. Sweet’s description, drawing on White’s own words, of how the opening scene of this book evolved is a master class in revision. As every writer knows, “revising is part of writing.” These scenes show how the fantastical elements of White’s fiction are grounded in the real world. As White replied to one of his critics, “children can sail easily over the fence that separates reality from make-believe.”

No detail in the design of Some Writer is ignored: chapter numbers are old typewriter keys, old-fashioned labels are used for page numbers and to identify the essay or letter of White’s that is being quoted. Sweet’s collages are perfect mentor texts for creative ways to convey information.


The publisher lists the age range as 7-10, but middle school readers will also find plenty to be inspired by in this book. All readers and writers have much to learn from E.B. White’s quiet wisdom about writing and life. Interested readers will want to explore the extensive endnotes and bibliography of White’s own work, as well as works written about him. There is a touching afterword by White’s granddaughter, Martha, and notes from Melissa Sweet about her writing process and her art.

Sweet writes with the economy White advocates in The Elements of Style. “Every word tell[s]” a key part of White’s story. She blends her words and her art with White’s words and demystifies the process of becoming a writer… “through hard work and being open to the world around you.”

After White’s death, Roger Angell, William Shawn, and John Updike wrote in his obituary, “White felt it was a writer’s obligation to transmit as best he can his love of life, his appreciation for the natural world.” Sweet’s love of and appreciation of E.B.White, his work, and the natural world shine out from every page of Some Writer. In her author’s note, Sweet quotes White, saying “It has been ambitious and plucky of me to attempt to describe what is indescribable…[But] a writer, like an acrobat, must occasionally try a stunt that is too much for him.” Like Charlotte’s Web itself, Sweet’s “stunt” is nothing short of a miracle.


Review copy received from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. An Educator’s Guide for Some Writer is available here.

Please be sure to visit Jen Vincent at Teach Mentor Texts and Kellee Moye of Unleashing Readers for more book recommendations.

Poetry Friday: Off to the Fair

With my mother and sister before I marched in the parade for the first time.

Every August, my town is transformed by the Bridgewater Country Fair. Sponsored by the volunteer fire department, this annual event was one of the highlights of my childhood. The fair was a magical place with a merry-go-round and Ferris wheel, farm animals, flowers, and vegetables. All summer, I looked forward to eating all the food I could only get at the fair.

The fair where Wilbur and Charlotte have their final triumph has always reminded me of our fair. As a matter of fact, I think one of the reasons I loved Charlotte’s Web so much the first time I read it was because White’s description of the fair resonated so deeply with me. (I still love it, but for many other reasons.) I’ve often tried to write something about the Bridgewater Fair, but have never been happy with the results. So this year, inspired by Margaret, I decided to create a found poem using White’s own words. Drawn from chapters XVI, XVII, XVIII, and chapter XIX, this poem uses White’s language to capture my memories of the fair of my childhood.


“Off to the Fair”

The Fair only comes once a year.

Balloons aloft.

Clean straw,

new pigpen,

cattle barn,

sheep blatting,

first prize.

“Can I have some money?”

Have some fun on the midway:

Ferris wheel turning,

round and round in the sky.

Music of the merry-go-round,

steer a jet plane.

“Hold on tight!”

Spin a wheel, win a doll.

Many fine smells in the air:

Hamburgers frying,


candied apples,


Wonderful excitement!

Wonderful adventure!

~from the words of Charlotte’s Web, by E.B. White

Happy Friday, everyone! I’m “off to the fair!”

Thank you to Lisa at Steps and Staircases for hosting the Poetry Friday Round Up today. Be sure to head over and read more wonderful poetry!


A Slice of Life: A Visit to the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art

sols_6Now that the month-long Slice of Life challenge has ended, I’m hoping to continue sharing slices every Tuesday. Be sure to visit Stacey and Ruth at Two Writing Teachers to read more amazing writing. Thank you for hosting this weekly Slice of Life Challenge!

Last Friday, a friend and I hopped in the car and drove to Amherst, MA and the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art to see their celebration of Garth Williams’s beloved illustrations of Charlotte’s Web.


Going to The Carle is one of my favorite day trips. When you arrive, you’re greeted by this bug:


As you enter the museum, you step into by a large space filled with light and color. Panels of bright primary colors adorn one long wall of the Great Hall. My friend and I spent some time trying to decide what each panel reminded us of, and which one we liked best.

Fire or autumn leaves?
A field of waving grass?
The ocean or fish, or both?
Warm summer sunshine!
A cozy spot to sit and read.

There are auditoriums for lectures and films, as well as an art studio where kids can make their own colorful creations. I’ve always wanted to go in and make some art myself, but it’s really for the kids. More of Eric Carle’s whimsical art is hung in this hallway.

      Image  Image

The West Gallery is devoted to Carle’s work, but the theme shifts on a regular basis. The current show, Feathers, Fins, and Fur, features penguins, cardinals, and more. In addition, there are two galleries for special exhibits. The larger East Gallery has had shows featuring the work of Tomi dePaola, Virginia Lee Burton, and illustrations from various editions of The Wizard of Oz, to name just a few. On display until June 9th is Latino Folk Tales: Cuentos Populares-Art by Latino Artists. The vivid colors and styles of these artists bring the tradition of magical realism to life.

The exhibit in the smaller Central Gallery was the main reason for our visit.


Some Book, Some Art showcased Garth Williams’s classic illustrations for Charlotte’s Web. It was fascinating to see the early ideas Williams had for the cover of the book and his process of going from rough sketch to finished art. There were also early studies of what Charlotte herself would look like. In one draft, she bore quite a resemblance to the Mona Lisa! This small, humble, gallery is currently filled with radiant, terrific art.

An unexpected treasure of the exhibit was this poem, written by E.B White to his wife, Katherine, just before they were married.

“Natural History”

The spider, dropping down from twig,

Unwinds a thread of his devising;

A thin, premeditated rig,

To use in rising.

And all the journey down through space

In cool descent, and loyal-hearted,

He builds a ladder to the place

From which he started.

Thus I, gone forth, as spiders do,

In spider’s web a truth discerning,

Attach one silken strand to you

For my returning.

I will return the The Carle again and again, just as I return to Charlotte’s Web from time to time. I love the beauty contained within both.

Slice 30 of 31: The Miracle of Charlotte’s Web


As this month-long Slice of Life Challenge draws to a close, I’d like to take a look back at what brought me here.

One day in 1969 or 1970, I became a reader. It wasn’t that I hadn’t been reading and enjoying books before that; I had. But on that distant, seemingly ordinary day, a reader was born. How did this miracle occur? For whatever reason, my fourth grade teacher, Mrs. Matthews began reading Charlotte’s Web aloud to our class.


I was instantly drawn into the story. I recognized myself in Fern. I lived across the street from a farm, so the setting was familiar, even comforting. I wished I could raise a baby pig, although I’m sure I would have changed my mind quickly after a day or so. I guess the why of all this doesn’t matter. What does matter is that the right book was presented to me at the right time and it all clicked.

When I started teaching third grade I knew I wanted to begin the year reading Charlotte’s Web to my students. It became a tradition, and third grade teachers at my school still begin the year reading Charlotte’s Web to their students. There really isn’t any better place to start.

Katherine Paterson says that “a book can give a child a way to learn to value herself, which is at the start of the process of growing a great soul.” (pg. 32, The Invisible Child) E.B. White’s masterpiece did this for me.

Esme Raji Codell feels that “if a book helps to build an empathetic imagination, it succeeds.” (On Point interview, July 2, 2010) What better way to help a child with this than to show them Fern’s devotion to Wilbur? Or the truly selfless acts of Charlotte on behalf of Wilbur? Or the dedication of Wilbur to Charlotte’s children and grandchildren?

The book is also a celebration of the miracles of nature all around us that we fail to notice. When Mrs. Arable is worried about Fern’s obsession with Wilbur and the animals at the barn, she visits Dr. Dorian to discuss this.

She asks him “Do you understand how there could be any writing in a spider’s web?”

“Oh no,” said Dr. Dorian. “I don’t understand it. But for that matter I don’t understand how a spider learned to spin a web in the first place. When the words appeared, everyone said they were a miracle. But nobody pointed out that the web itself is a miracle.” (p. 108-109)

E.B. White appreciated miracles. And he created one with Charlotte’s Web.

Thank you to Stacey and Ruth at Two Writing Teachers for hosting this Slice of Life Challenge!