I had the wonderful good fortune of hearing Melissa Sweet talk about her work last week. It was a fascinating presentation about her process, her research, her art. I left inspired, and with a hankering to find scissors and a glue stick and do some collage myself. (Let’s be clear, things would not turn out at all like Sweet’s gorgeous works of art….)
I’ve been carrying around her book, Some Writer! The Story of E. B. White, in my purse ever since. It’s signed now, which gives me an extra “zing” of joy every time I pull it out. I’ve read it several times. I’m to the point now, as I’ve been with Charlotte’s Web since I was a child, that I just open it wherever and start reading.
Which is what I did in one of the dreariest waiting rooms known to humanity a few days ago. Before I’d finished reading the quote that begins chapter five, the whining child across from me stopped pestering his mother for two seconds and called out to me.
“Hey! Is that a kid book or an adult book?” His tone was challenging.
“Well, technically, it’s a biography written for kids—” I said, and before I could add that anyone could read and enjoy it he interrupted.
“Then why are you reading it?”
“It’s a really good book,” I said.
“Do you read other kids’ books?” he demanded. His mother tried to hush him.
“Yes, I do,” I said. “Lots.”
“They often tell the best stories,” I said as his mother tried to shush him again.
And then I took a chance.… “Would you like to look at it with me?” I asked.
“Naw, I don’t like books,” he said, and he sat back in his chair in a huff.
“Oh,” I said. “I’m sorry about that.”
I didn’t know what else to say. I wasn’t going to burden this grumpy waiting child with any didacticisms about how important and joyful reading is, and how perhaps he might not have found the right book yet etc. So I went back to reading.
But the questions continued.
“Is that a man or a teenager petting that pig?” he asked squinting at the cover from where his Mom held him to his chair. So I told him it was E.B. White—pointing to White’s name—as a young man, and before I could tell him who E.B. White was he said, “That’s not a name—E.B.! Those are just…letters. What’s his real name?”
“Elwyn,” I said.
He laughed uproariously. I went back to reading. But it wasn’t long before he managed to cross the waiting room aisle and sit beside me, all nonchalant-like. I opened the book wider, rested it on my right leg, closer to him, and started a game of I-Spy.
“I spy a ruler,” I said. He found it immediately. He also found the birchbark canoe and the small box of paperclips. Sweet’s collaged illustrations are packed with various and sundry things.
He spied a mouse. I told him about Stuart Little. We turned the page. I read him the letter White wrote to his editor Ursula Nordstrom. He commented that “E.B.’s” writing wasn’t very neat and confessed his wasn’t either. We laughed about eating 100,000 stalks of celery and 100,000 olives, which is what White suggested as a celebration for the 100,000 copies of Stuart Little that had sold—and which my young friend declared “nasty.” So we thought of better things to eat in celebration and agreed that 100,000 of most anything was too much.
We continued looking through the book. I didn’t read it to him so much as we enjoyed the illustrations together. He loved the rough sketches of Charlotte done by Garth Williams. I told him a little about Melissa Sweet and her art studio. He declared this information “cool,” so I was glad I had it.
Eventually, the boy and his mother were called in, and then I was, too. When I came back out, the waiting room was empty.
I think there’s a decent chance my young friend will check into Stuart Little if he remembers the title. I’m sure he’ll remember that the author’s first name was “E.B.”, and any librarian or bookseller worth her or his salt should be able to help him out.
I do hope so.