Some Writer: The Story of E.B. White
Written by Melissa Sweet
Afterword by Martha White
Published in 2016 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
“All that I hope to say in books, all that I ever hope to say, is that I love the world.” Elwyn Brooks White, better known as E.B. White to the world and Andy to his friends, had a capacity for wonder that has enchanted generations of readers. At long last, we have a fully illustrated biography of E. B. White that gives us the opportunity to follow his life’s journey from his early days as a boy through his death. With her signature style, Melissa Sweet mirrors White’s childlike sense of wonder. Weaving artifacts from White’s life alongside her own original illustrations and collages, Sweet has created a mosaic that invites readers to linger on each page, to notice, and to wonder. Each page invites us to look more closely at the photographs, writings, and objects that filled White’s life from New York City to Maine. White’s ubiquitous writings are the stars of the book including early writings from his boyhood, a poem for his beloved wife, and the many attempts he made over a year to begin Charlotte’s Web. By the end of the book, readers may feel the deep sense of gratitude for the beauty of the world so poignantly captured by both White and Sweet. The book concludes with an author’s note by Sweet about the sheer joy she experienced delving into White’s oeuvre. The book also includes an afterword by Martha White, E.B.’s granddaughter, who gives an unequivocal family seal of approval for Sweet’s masterful telling of her grandfather’s luminous life story. After reading Some Writer, all that you will hope to say is that you love this book.
Teaching Ideas / Invitations for Your Classroom:
Some Writer. E.B. White’s life story shows us that even as a boy he knew about the power of observation, collection, and gratitude. Before exploring the ways that E.B. White was “some writer”, consider brainstorming with the class the qualities of a great writer. How does one become a great writer or “some writer”? E.B. White did care a great deal about spelling and grammar, but those are not necessarily the qualities that made his writing so enchanting. He approached the world with his eyes wide open to notice the details that often allude many of us each day. He collected these observations in a cheap notebook that was always by his bed. He wrote about the things he did, what he had seen, and thoughts he had. Sometimes he added pictures. One of the most remarkable commitments he made as an early writer was that he always ended his journal jottings by asking himself a question like, “I wonder what I’m going to be when I grow up?” After reading about E.B. White’s journaling, give each of your students a similar inexpensive notebook that they can keep by their bedside to gather their observations, statements of gratitude, and questions. Some students may benefit from sentence stems such as I see___, I feel ___, I heard____, I am grateful for ____, and I wonder____.
Genre Study: Learning from Life Stories. At The Classroom Bookshelf, we often gravitate towards compelling biographies, or life stories, that capture our interest and attention. Gather other biographies available in your classroom or school library and have students explore the characteristics they notice about the genre and the different ways authors have of expressing the life story of someone else. Craft a class definition for the word biography and consider as a class the purpose of biographies to inform, entertain, inspire, and motivate readers. As you gather and display biographies ensure that you are representing diversity by considering gender and the cultural and linguistic backgrounds of the figures you are featuring. Some of our favorite picture book biographies that we have written about include: I Dissent: Ruth Bader Ginsburg Makes Her Mark by Debbie Levy, Trombone Shorty by Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews, Ira’s Shakespeare Dream by Glenda Armand, Edward Hopper Paints His World by Robert Burleigh, and Who Says Women Can’t Be Doctors? The Story of Elizabeth Blackwell by Tanya Lee Stone. Search The Classroom Bookshelf under “Nonfiction” to find many more biographies we have written about over the years.
Powerful Words: Zooming in on Quotes. “I fell in love with the sound of an early typewriter and I have been stuck with it ever since.” One of the most captivating features of the book are the myriad quotes from E.B. White that Melissa Sweet spotlights in several different forms. Gather the quotes from across the book and have students select their favorite to focus on. What about the quote grabbed their attention? Have students go further by rewriting White’s words with their own while maintaining the intention of the message. If available, have students type their own original quotes on a typewriter to experience the magic of hearing the clicks White heard when he typed his manuscripts.
How to Craft a Lead: Learning from E.B. White’s Trial and Errors. One of the most enlightening chapters is the one devoted to Charlotte’s Web and White’s process for crafting the story. Share with students the five attempts that White made over the course of a year before landing on the line that would grab the world’s attention. Work with the class to name the techniques he uses as a writer with each lead including: describing a character, putting himself in the story with the use of “I”, describing the setting, describing a series of small actions a character takes, and finally, dialogue. Throughout the year, as students embark on writing their own narratives return to White’s lead attempts and have students try using various techniques that White does before deciding on the lead that will finally start their own stories.
Primary Sources as Pathways for Learning. Select some of White’s photographs and writings to share with students through a document camera or by passing around the book or copies of select pages. Invite students to share what they see, think, and wonder about White and his life through these primary sources. Encourage students to gather photos and other artifacts from their own families to share them with the class. You may want to use those personal primary sources as pathways for students to learn more about themselves, their families, and each other. You may even want to have students engage in Storycorps’ The Great Thanksgiving Listen by interviewing family members. In doing so, they would be contributing an audiorecording that will be kept in the Library of Congress for generations to come.
Answers to Hard Questions. Each of E.B. White’s works of children’s literature entrusts young children to grapple with complex questions about life knowing that they are searching for answers. Support students to notice the questions that E.B. White and Melissa Sweet ask across the book about life, joy, sorrow, beauty, and love. Invite students to ask their own hard questions about life. For example, one of the questions we heard after a read-aloud lately included, “Would you rather fit in or would you rather be different?” Make question-asking a ritual at the end of your read-alouds throughout the year.
Author Study. Gather E.B. White’s books written for children: Stuart Little, Charlotte’s Web, and Trumpet of the Swan. Consider doing a book talk for each and having students in upper elementary grades read one of the selections in a text club. Have students select lines from the stories that grab their attention, make them wonder, and inspire them to be wide-awake to the world.
Illustrator Study. Melissa Sweet is a Caldecott Honor winner for the illustrations in her books A River of Words and The Right Word: Roget and his Thesaurus both written by Jen Bryant. She is also the 2012 Robert F. Sibert Informational Book Medal winner for Balloons Over Broadway. She has also illustrated many other works that we have written about at The Classroom Bookshelf including Firefly July, Brave Girl: Clara and the Shirtwaist Makers’ Strike, A Splash of Red: The Life and Art of Horace Pippen, Little Red Writing, and Spike: The Mixed Up Monster. Gather many of Melissa Sweet’s books and have students explore the things she writes about and the illustration techniques she uses across the books. Visit her website to learn more about her process as an illustrator. Then, gather a variety of materials including different scraps of paper, bits of nature, and various bits of fabric for students to create their own Sweet-inspired mixed-media collages for their own stories.
New Yorker cartoons. Before he wrote children’s books, E.B. White was a writer for The New Yorker magazine and Harper’s Magazine. He wrote captions for cartoons, short articles on current events called “Comments”, and “Newbreaks” or humorous column fillers that offered corrections to blunders in other printed newspapers and magazines. Share several examples of White’s New Yorker cartoon captions as well as captions from recent issues of the magazine. Have your students try writing their own captions for cartoons in The New Yorker. The caption contest is a regular feature of the magazine and could become an ongoing contest in your classroom throughout the year.
Elements of Style. Later in his life, E.B. White was invited to revise his former professor, Will Strunk’s, book Elements of Style that explains the fundamentals of English grammar and advocates for writers to be “clear, brief, bold”. Share with students some of Strunk and White’s rules of grammar, composition, and form. Reflect as a class on the ways in which the writers Joyce Sidman, Paul Fleischman, and Kate DiCamillo use Elements of Style to strengthen their own writing. Have students revisit a piece of their own writing with the goal of revising it according to at least one of Strunk and White’s rules.
Who Was Katherine White? While E.B. White was famous in his lifetime first as a writer for The New Yorker and then later for his works of children’s literature, Katherine White is largely unknown, at least to the general public. Katherine Sargeant Angell was the fiction editor of The New Yorker, a rare position that few women would have had the opportunity to hold. This was a position she held before she met and married E.B. White and which she maintained throughout her transition to motherhood, another feat for women of the time. Discuss with students the ways in which Katherine contributed to E.B. White’s success. Then, discuss with students the ways in which women today come up against glass ceilings that limit their influence.
Melissa Sweet’s Site
National Public Radio Episode on Some Writer
Book Trailer by HMH Books
In The Words of E.B. White Book Trailer
Illustrated by Melissa Sweet
Bryant, J. (2008). A river of words: The story of William Carlos Williams. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Books for Young Readers.
Bryant, J. (2013). A splash of red: The life and art of Horace Pippen. New York, NY: Knopf Books for Young Readers.
Bryant, J. (2014). The right word: Roget and his thesaurus. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Books for Young Readers
Holub, J. (2016). Little red writing. San Francisco, CA: Chronicle Books.
Hood, S. (2012). Spike: The mixed up monster. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.
Janeczko, P.B. (2014). Firefly July: A year of very short poems. Somerville, MA: Candlewick.
Markel, M. (2013). Brave girl: Clara and the shirtwaist makers’ strike. New York, NY: Balzer + Bray
Sweet, M. (2012). Balloons over Broadway: The true story of the puppeteer of Macy’s Parade. Boston, MA: HMH Books for Young Readers.
Written by E.B. White
White, E.B. (1945/1973). Stuart Little. New York, NY: Harper and Brothers.
White, E.B. (1952). Charlotte’s web. New York, NY: Harper and Brothers.
White, E.B. (1970). Trumpet of the swan. New York, NY: Harper and Row.
About Katie Cunningham
Katie is a Professor of Literacy and English Education at Manhattanville College. There she is also the Director of the Advanced Certificate Program in Social and Emotional Learning and Whole Child Education. Her work focuses on children’s literature, joyful literacy methods, and literacy leadership. Katie is the author of Story: Still the Heart of Literacy Learning and co-author of Literacy Leadership in Changing Schools. Her book Start with Joy: Designing Literacy Learning for Student Happiness will be released September 2019. She is passionate about the power of stories to transform lives.
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