Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Q&A with Melissa Sweet

Melissa Sweet is the author and illustrator of the new children's biography Some Writer! The Story of E.B. White. Her other work includes Carmine: A Little More Red and Balloons Over Broadway. She has illustrated almost 100 children's books. She lives in Maine.

Q: Why did you decide to write about E. B. White, and what did you learn about him that particularly surprised you?

A: In thinking about my next book that I wanted to write and illustrate, E. B. White came to mind. I thought: He was some writer!, and there was my title.

Immediately there were questions: How did he come to write his three children's books, Charlotte's Web, Stuart Little, The Trumpet of the Swan? When did he begin working for The New Yorker? And what were the names of all of his dogs?

In a way, everything surprised me. I only knew a few tidbits about White's life, and one thing that was particularly wonderful was learning about St. Nicholas Magazine.

As youngsters, White, and other future authors, Edna St. Vincent Millay, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Rachel Carson, to name a few, were all subscribers to St. Nick. They entered their work in the magazine's contests (White later wrote that as budding writers they were "a fiendishly competitive band of tots."). 

I loved their enthusiasm for seeing themselves in print. It was a fun piece of literary history that I had never heard before.

Q: How did you come up with the technique you use involving text, photos, illustrations, and other media, and how did you track down the material you include in the book?

A: As I began the research (about five minutes after I had this idea) it didn't take long to realize that White's own essays and letters described his life so beautifully, there was no way to say it better or more clearly.

The White family was incredibly generous in allowing me to use archival materials: letters, excerpts from essays, photos, manuscript pages, and I planned to include my own collages.

Using all these elements determined how the book was designed. The placement of each element had to make sense and further the story.

As an illustrator, designing the book along the way is integral to marrying the words and images. I created the "sketches" for this book almost as timeline and began placing the photos, letters, etc. where they supported the story.

I started the art by creating each chapter opener (13 in all), since these chapters punctuate the book. This was an exercise in play, and breaking the rules of what a chapter opener could be. 

Q: Do you have a favorite among E.B. White’s books, and why or why not?

A: Strunk and White's Elements of Style has been a favorite ever since I wrote my first book, Carmine: A Little More Red. As I began writing Some Writer! I realized I had six or seven copies between my home and studio.

White's chapter, "An Approach to Style," gives pithy and pertinent advice with his classic wit. And it's short enough to reread often.

Q: Who do you see as the perfect audience or age group for this book?

A: Anyone who is reading or has enjoyed Charlotte's Web is a perfect reader for this book, any reader about seven years old and up. This book is a graphic biography, the kind of book I would have loved to read growing up as a visual kid.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: My next book is a picture book by Kwame Alexander. Stay tuned....

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I'd like to close with E. B. White's advice from his Basic Chicken Guide, four words to live by: "Be tidy. Be brave."

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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