Monday, July 9, 2018

Some Writer: E. B. White

We all know the story of Charlotte, a talented spider who “saves the bacon” for a pig named Wilbur, in the children’s classic Charlotte’s Web, by E. B. White.

In the book Some Writer, Melissa Sweet—a Caldecott Honor Award winning artist—chronicles the life of E. B. White in a series of collages that combine letters, newspaper clippings, old photos and original manuscripts, quotations, and the enchanting illustrations of Sweet herself. This book is a masterpiece of visual storytelling.

As a child, White kept a notebook by his bed. He would write in it at bedtime—about the happenings of the dayand he would end with a question so he would have something to think about as he fell asleep. “I wonder what I’m going to be when I grow up?”

At age nine, White sent a poem to his brother Albert, a student at Cornell. Imagine his surprise when Albert submitted the poem to a contest held by Woman’s Home Companion magazine. And the poem won! He started submitting stories to St. Nicholas Illustrated Stories for Boys and Girls. In order to submit, you had to join “the League,” sponsored by St. Nicholas. Other members of the League included young William Faulkner, Rachel Carson, and Edna St. Vincent Millay. Not a bad start to a literary career—and he was still a boy.

"Andy" White, in the Cornell Yearbook

At Cornell University, White wrote for the school paper, the Cornell Sun. Fellow students gave him the nickname "Andy,"  and the name stayed with him. After university, Andy and a friend traveled West by Model-T, stopping to pay their way with small writing gigs. One ledger entry says, “Sold a sonnet for $5.00 about a horse that won the Kentucky Derby.”

When White wound up back in New York, living with his parents, he started writing for a new magazine, The New Yorkermaking $30 a week. He shared an office with James Thurber, and the two became friends. Naturally, he had to do other odd jobs to make ends meet.

In time, Andy married Katharine Angeli, another writer at The New Yorker, and they started a family. It was Andy's idea that they should move away from the city to Maine and work and write from there.

Andy wrote an essay about children's books that caught the eye of Theodore Geisel (Dr. Seuss), who sent it on to children's librarian Anne Carroll Moore. Moore wrote to Andy, urging him to write a children's book. And thus was born Stuart Little, White's first book for children.

Andy told his editor, the story "would seem to be for children, but I'm not fussy who reads it." By publishing this book, Andy said he learned that "children can sail easily over the fence that separates reality from make-believe. A fence that can throw a librarian is nothing to a child." And just reading this quote helps me to understand that I am more of a child than a librarian.

While they lived on a farm in Maine, Andy was deeply moved by the death of a pig. He decided that someday he wanted to write a book about saving a pig's life.

Later, after watching a spider's eggs hatch, Andy began to wonder if perhaps a spider could save a pig. And I think that after reading his next children's bookCharlotte's Webwe all know the answer to that question.

White would go on to write The Trumpet of the Swan for children and an updated edition of The Elements of Style, originally written by his college professor, William Strunk, Jr. And what better writer could tackle this task, to create a handbook for careful writers everywhere!

E. B. White

After Charlotte's passing in Charlotte's Web, Wilbur says: "It is not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer. Charlotte was both.” After reading Some Writer: the Story of E. B. White, I feel like Andy White was both a true friend and a good writer. He was indeed some writer!

Photo Credits:
   Pig in blue circle - Author: LadyofHats - This work has been released into 
          the public domain by its author, LadyofHats. This applies worldwide;
   St. Nicholas magazine - Author: Dodge, Mary Mapes - At the time of upload, 
          the image license was automatically confirmed using the Flickr API;
   Cornell senior photo - This media file is in the public domain in the United States. 
          This applies to U.S. works where the copyright has expired, often 
          because its first publication occurred prior to January 1, 1923;
   New Yorker logo - Public domain: This image only consists of simple geometric 
          shapes or text. It does not meet the threshold of originality needed for 
          copyright protection;
   Pig clipart - Author: LadyofHats - This work has been released into the public 
          domain by its author, LadyofHats. This applies worldwide;
   Spider web with dew - Author: Taken or created by Fir0002;
   E. B. White - from a family photograph, derivative work: —Eustress talk