by Sam Juliano
In 1941 the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences chose John Ford’s How Green Was My Valley as the Best Picture of the year. It was a decision that has lived in infamy and has long maligned a film that in any other year would have made a laudatory choice. But alas that was the year of Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane, a cinematic reference point that has allowed viewers to both understand the language of film and its potential as a medium for storytelling. Repeatedly cinephiles have named the film as the greatest of all time, and as an ultimate example of artistic expression. Thus, award watchers have never come to terms with the inexplicable slight, even though the film was among the nominees for the prize. Since that implied debacle seventy-five years ago, few people can assess How Green Was My Valley on its own terms, instead it is always sized up as that movie – the one that beat out Citizen Kane. There were to be many dubious verdicts from that group prior and since, but no other has attracted the same degree of unmitigated scorn.
Children’s literature fans are just as swift to identify the most glaring injustice handed out by their own most prestigious awards giving body -the American Library Association- and it is one that has left readers young and old shaking their heads for the better part of seven decades. In 1953 the ALA’s twenty-two member Newbery committee annointed Ann Nolan Clark’s The Secret of the Andes as the gold medal winner. Four books were named as the runners-up, including E. B. White’s Charlotte’s Web, with each earning a Newbery Honor. The book focused on Cusi, an Inca boy raised in a remote valley of the Andes mountain chain in Peru who ultimately tries to find himself through activities like llama herding. The book starts slowing but develops admirably. yet, like its film counterpart it was in over its head in the competition. Indeed, in an article published in School Library Journal in 2008 children’s literature luminary Anita Silvey revealed from reliable documentation that one member of the twenty-two who made up the Newbery committee stated that she voted for Secret of the Andes instead of Charlotte’s Web because she “hadn’t seen any good books about South America.” Silvey added that “while The Secret of the Andes is a ‘good’ book, Charlotte’s Web is the best.” And such is the present-day summary judgement of the vast majority of teachers, book critics and historians, who have time and again equated White’s novel as the American piece de resistance in children’s literature with a reputation to match Kenneth Graham’s The Wind in the Willows in the United Kingdom. But awards seldom impede the popularity of something as iconic as White’s sophomore novel -as it turned out the middle work of three- and an adoring public in Pucciniesque devotion helped to build the statistic that really mattered the most – millions of copies sold and translantions into twenty-two languages. As to the Caldecott Honor silver medal, for years Scribner’s has resisted pasting that shiny sticker on the cover as if to rightly opine that this great work of art is beyond such arbitrary gauging, not to mention how ludicrous it is on principal that Charlotte’s Web should be advertised as ‘second best.’
Everyone has their own Charlotte’s Web stories. Mine dates back to 1963 in a fourth-grade classroom taught by one of those rare educators whose nurturing influence will be cherished for a lifetime. For some Mrs. Celeste Zematies will always be known as the one who first mentioned the assassination of President John F. Kennedy near the end of a November school day, but her theatrical reading of E. B. White’s twenty-two chapter masterpiece from the beginning of February till mid June on Friday afternoons left impressionable nine-year olds salivating to learn whether Mr. Arable would allow Fern to raise Wilbur, how the astonishingly literate spider Charlotte A. Cavatica planned to keep the emotional pig in the land of the living, and what new escapade was in store for the glotonous rat Templeton, who was game for anything as long as he was given first dibs. In a crucial year of elementary school learning it all came down to a pig and a spider to steal our affections and years down the road the Zuckerman barn and the fairgrounds were more memorable locations than any classroom poster, textbook or report card. An emotional connection was achieved and cultivated, and it was meant to last a lifetime. I remember conning my parents into buying me my own copy of the now famous hardback with the white dust jacket drawing of Fern, Wilbur and the goose looking ahead at literature’s most beloved spider. I revisited the adventures and the heartbreak several times, and like many of my classroom pals I always wondered about the man who created all these unforgettable characters. Heck we thought him the greatest writer who ever lived, or a least the most famous American author. As we grew older we found out there were others like Twain, Hemingway and Steinbeck who were held in the highest esteem, but much like the person who fondly remembers their very first date with a defiant measure of ownership, White was the one who made the first lasting impression at the earliest time, hence he maintained the longest staying power.
White is generally acknowledged as one of the greatest writers of children’s books, and his name is spoken in the same breath as that of Maurice Sendak, Robert McCloskey and Laura Ingalls Wilder among Americans, and the aforementioned Graham, Lewis Carroll and Roald Dahl from Europe. In addition to his pig and spider tale he penned Stuart Little and The Trumpet of the Swans. Each won wide critical acclaim, though Charlotte’s Web stands alone in spectacular regard and popularity. Publisher’s Weekly declared at the turn of the new millenium that the book is the best selling paperback children’s book of all-time, and it has maintained lofy positions on read-aloud lists since it first walked through the literary door.
The most colorful, engaging, passionate and personal of any biography ever written on Elwyn Brooks White – Some Writer: The Story of E. B. White – just released this month, and the author-illustrator seemed like a perfect fit for the assignment when it was first announced. Melissa Sweet, who grew up in a northeastern New Jersey suburb not far from Manhattan has since relocated to Maine, where White himself maintained a home in Belgrade Lake, when he wasn’t staying on at his working abode in Manhattan. Sweet’s coastal home is in the proximity of the White compound, and through a special friendship with White’s grandaughter Martha she gained access to valuable archival materials that help to paint a provocative portrait of the icon through letters, manuscripts, interview excerpts and photos that achieve immediate visual chemistry with Sweet’s trademark mixed media collage art. From the earliest sepia tone captures of the baby Elwyn -the youngest of six in a family brood evenly divided in gender, through the family’s musical indoctrination shaped by the father Samuel’s position at a Fifth Avenue piano company, and on through the other activities brought to bear at an early age that included canoing, ice skating and riding a bike backward. At five years old Elwin became an uncle. Shortly thereafter he began working on a journal (diary) which he faithfully visited every day for twenty years. He asked himself questions including one that posed what he would do when he grew up. Soon enough he began to make his mark in junvenile literary circles, winning first prize in a contest for his poem “A Story of a Little Mouse.” He went on to win a gold medal for “A True Dog Story” about his dog Beppo from the monthly magazine St. Nicholas. He attended Cornell University and was given the name “Andy” after the institution’s first presient and the name stuck, a fact not at all bemoaned by White who never cared much for Elwyn.
Circa 1925 White had one of his major breakthroughs when his first story was published in The New Yorker, a prominent literary journal also known for its sassy cartoons. He shared an office with James Thurber and the two soon became friends. He married Katherine, a co-writer at the journal and both miraculously maintained their jobs during the Great Depression. Soon after their son Joel was born. The family spent a time in Maine, a place young Joel immediately warmed to but when the Second World War engulfed the nation White and his family return to New York, where the perfectionist author toiled until completely satisfied with his first book Stuart Little. Said White: “I would rather wait a year than publish a bad children’s book, as I have too much respect for children.” Sweet reveals a fact about the selection of an illustrator for Stuart Little, as anything but an easy process. After the celebrated E.H. Shepard of Winnie the Pooh fame and Robert Lawson, who did the unforgettable art for Ferdinand were unavailable, five others were considered but finally rejected because their mouse drawings too closely resembled Walt Disney’s Mickey Mouse. Andy finally recommended Garth Williams, who had submitted some drawings to The New Yorker. Literary critics soon came to believe that his textured line drawings were integral to the works he adorned. He illustrated all three of White’s novels as well as the “Little House” books for Laura Ingalls Wilder, and many years after his death is now considered one of the greatest artists to ever grace children’s books with his work.
A sad experience on his own farm served as the catalyst for White’s great masterpiece. He wondered what could save a pig’s life, and after various ideas floated around he settled on a plain grey spider common to New England barns, where it spun oversized webs in doorways and wooden overhangs. Sweet’s use of manuscripts to illustrate the painstaking process of beginning the novel -White at one point was so frustrated he let it go for a year before returning to it- makes for a fascinating side drama that after numerous scrappings the author cuts right to the action with the now famous line “Where’s Papa going with that axe? said Fern to her mother.” The finished manuscrpit elicited nothing other than a declaration of perfection aside from a single chapter title changed near the end, so as not to telegraph the manner of conclusion. Sweet features one of the novel’s most unforgettable passages – the one where Wilbur asks Charlotte why she did so much for him when the action was never reciprocated, and Charlotte responds that being her friend is more than enough- full font and follows that up with a capsule assessment by the author Eudora Welty that sums up its timeless appeal. Surprisingly White had to go through seventeen takes before finishing his own audiobook recording because he drowned in tears at the ending. The author admitted it was rather ridiculous for the person who wrote the book to carry on in such a fashion, but it does underscore the emotional power it exerts. Of course, Sweet’s use of “Some Writer” as the book’s title makes reference to one of web displays that helps to bring Homer Zuckerman around to the conviction that Wilbur is a celebrity and must for the rest of his days be treated as one. The words Charlotte wove in her web were some pig!
White denies there are any political undertones. He states emphatically in a 1971 letter: “It is a straight report from the barn cellar, which I dearly love, having spent so many fine hours there, winter and summer, spring and fall, good times and bad times, with garrulous geese, the passage of swallows, the nearness of rats, and the sameness of sheep.” For those who always marveled at White’s trademark clean and simple writing and seemingly flawless choice fo words, Sweet reports that he followed the principles set forth by Henry David Thoreau, whose Walden was the only book White owned. Even his boathouse resembled the one where Thoreu wrote his masterwork in size and dimensions. After a brief discussion of writing style, the book’s eleventh chapter segues into the preparation for White’s final novel The Trumpet of the Swan, which was undertaken for finantial reasons connected to Katherine’s declining health and the medical bills that began to pile up. The initial idea, the research and the stern defense of its mise en scene are addressed by Sweet, including the surprising revelation that Andy’s father was loquacious, a point that contradicts the spare economy of the writer’s own mode of operation. Andy states flatly to this effect: “Father was quite a talker and didn’t hesitate to say in twenty words what could be said in six.” Fellow writer John Updike renders a glowing verdict and the Philadelphia Orchestra later sets the book to music. Waxing lyrical, Updike bestows upon White some of the most astoundingly penetrating acclaim any writer can ever hope to receive:
‘The Trumpet of the Swan’ glows with the primal ecstacies of space and light, of night and day, of nurturing and maturing, of courtship and art. On the last page Louis thinks of “how lucky he was to inhabit such a beautiful earth, how lucky he had been to solve his problems with music.” How rare that word ‘lucky’ has become! The universe remains chancy, but no one admits to having good luck. We, and our children are lucky to have this book.
Katherine died of heart failure in 1977 and White was too distraught to attend the funeral. He spent his final days boating, stating that the activities around his Maine farm were preferable to a resumption of writing. He lost the site of one eye at age 85, developed dementia and lived one more year before passing on October 1, 1985 at the age of 86. White specified in his will that he wanted the farm sold as a way to prevent it from being turned into a museum.
While Sweet’s employment of all the artifacts and materials made available to her are used to striking effect, her own inimitable art is what makes this project come together as a work of exceeding sublimity. Created in watercolor, gouache and mixed media with ledger paper this is a constant feast for the eyes. The unity is supplied by the illustratot’s style, which sometimes serves as adornment for the photographs and manuscripts but more often as stand alone single panel tapestries that define the seasons, rustic activities and drawings from the books under discussion. Ever meticulous and aware of the possibilities of the medium, she extends some of her scenarios like the one where postage stamps embellish a collection of children’s letters sent on to the author or prior to that when she points to the comparatively antiquated manner of writing on an old Corona typewriter which commandsd a full page with numbered operational instructions. Sweet doesn’t leave a single page of the 161 in the book with status quo typography – each is designed with varying shades of suggestiveness or authenticity or more often than not, both. Sweet’s faithful fans will surely conclude that her illustrative design is a pleasing hybrid of Firefly July, where outdoor foiliage runs supreme and The Right Word, her Caldecott Honor winning biography of Roget where language was the true center of the universe.
Some Writer! is an unabashed celebration of one of America’s literary treasures, a larger than life personage who helped shape the direction of children’s literature but more importantly to breathe life into some of the form’s most unforgettable creations. A thorough glossary, a passionate afterward by Martha White and touching end papers make this remarkable book a contender on a number of fronts – Caldecott, Newbery, Sibert have pretty much equal claim on this stellar accomplishment, but above all else Melissa Sweet has brought renewed appreciation through expert craftsmanship and dogged research to the audience for which her subject so committed his blood, sweat and tears. The book is a true labor of love.
Note: This is the second entry in the 2016 Caldecott Medal Contender series. The series does not purport to predict what the committee will choose, rather it attempts to gauge what the writer feels should be in the running. In most instances the books that are featured in the series have been touted as contenders in various online round-ups, but for the ones that are not, the inclusions are a humble plea to the committee for consideration. It is anticipated the series will include at least 30 titles; the order which they are being presented in is arbitrary, as every book in this series is a contender. Some of my top favorites of the lot will be done near the end. The awards will be announced on January 22nd, hence the reviews will continue till two days before that date.