KR BlogBlog

Where’s Papa going with that axe?

Some Writer! The Story of E.B. White by Melissa Sweet

As part of my work at Cleveland Public Library, I recently had the pleasure of interviewing Melissa Sweet, the author and illustrator of Some Writer! The Story of E.B. White. Sweet was honored with the 2018 Norman A. Sugarman Children’s Biography Award for this beautiful book, which offers a comprehensive, creative, and thoughtful portrayal of the beloved children’s book author.

In Some Writer!, Sweet depicts White’s love of dogs and the countryside in Maine, his precocious forays into writing as a child, his college years and work with The New Yorker and Harper’s, and, finally, his development into beloved children’s book author. While I encourage any reader who adored Charlotte’s Web or Stuart Little to pick up this biography, Some Writer! might be especially illuminating for other writers—especially when it comes to the value of hard work and revision.

I’m thinking, specifically, of how E.B. White labored over the opening line of Charlotte’s Web. Sweet’s biography includes images of White’s early first-page drafts of the novel, and she presents a chronological list of the first lines White tried out over time. Scanning White’s discarded attempts reads like a writing how-to book: he tried a physical description, evoking the name of a main character, starting with the setting, and opening with action, all before landing on dialogue, which he further refined. Take a look:

Charlotte was a gray spider who lived in the doorway of a barn.

I shall speak first of Wilbur.

A barn can have a horse in it, and a barn can have a cow in it, and a barn can have hens scratching in the chaff and swallows flying in and out through the door—but if a barn hasn’t got a pig in it, it is hardly worth talking about.

At midnight, John Arable pulled his boots on, lit a lantern, and walked out to the hoghouse.

“Where’s Papa going with that hand axe?”

“Where’s Papa going with that axe?”

Some Writer! shines a light on many other ways White’s books evolved creatively, including how he responded to a specific bit of criticism of Stuart Little, how he researched spiders before writing Charlotte’s Web, how he and illustrator Garth Williams refined Charlotte’s appearance, and more. Clearly, writing wasn’t always an easy process for E.B. White. Of writing Charlotte’s Web, in fact, he said,  “I had as much trouble getting off the ground as the Wright Brothers.”

Considering that Charlotte’s Web has become a classic of children’s literature and has enchanted children for generations, I find it reassuring that White pushed on with the work despite his doubts. Sweet thinks so, too.

“I wanted readers to see how E.B. White was always crafting, rewriting, and revising,” she told me. “It’s encouraging to think that it’s all in us [so long as we put in the work]. We shouldn’t be intimidated by any topic. Whatever we want to write about, we should go for it. Because who else is going to do it?”