Barbara Herkert’s story is the classic tale of the would-be artist who shelves her dreams to pursue a more practical path. Starting out as an art major in the 1970s, Herkert switched to nursing at her parent’s urging.
Ten years later, she followed her heart, pursuing an MFA. The Newport resident has written picture-book biographies on artists Mary Cassatt and Harriet Powers and is an 2019 Oregon Book Awards finalist in the children’s literature category for her third one, “A Boy, a Mouse, and a Spider: The Story of E.B. White.” The book awards ceremony will be held April 22 in the Gerding Theater at the Armory in Portland.
White is well known as the author of three classic children’s books — Charlotte’s Web, Stuart Little, and The Trumpet of the Swan. He wrote for The New Yorker magazine from 1927 until his death in 1985, and his revision of William Strunk Jr.’s writer’s handbook, The Elements of Style, is known to legions of college students and writers.
We talked to Herkert about her craft and admiration for White.
What led you to picture-book biographies?
Barbara Herkert: When I was at Hamline University, I had the great good fortune of working with Jacqueline Briggs Martin, who wrote the picture-book biography Snowflake Bentley and many others since then. She was my mentor and I fell in love with the genre. I started out illustrating my biographies. Then my editor asked how I felt about using an illustrator. So I’ve had three different illustrators for the three biographies. It brought a whole new level to my words and was very exciting. I’ve been very pleased.
And now you’ve made the short list for the Eloise Jarvis McGraw Award for Children’s Literature. Is this a first?
It is. I am so flattered and I feel like I’ve arrived. Everybody in my category is just amazing. I feel like I’ve already won.
What is your connection to White? How did you discover him?
I discovered him in the third grade when my teacher read Charlotte’s Web to us. She would read a chapter a day, and I was mesmerized by his words and I couldn’t wait until the next day when she read the next chapter. When I began to research him, I began to realize how much in common I had with him as a child.
When I research, I am always looking for gems. It’s a little bit like treasure hunting. I am looking for something that is going to appeal to children. E.B. White was shy as a child and related more to animals than people. He found himself through writing down his words and creating poetry. And so did I. There was something about his gentle nature, his humbleness and the incredible way he taught me to notice what was around me.
Do you think kids read him as much as our generation did?
Yes, I do. One of the things I hope to do with this book is to introduce a new generation to him, at a younger age. This is for 8- to 12-year-olds. Younger kids can relate to it because the pictures by Lauren Castillo are so wonderful. Older kids can relate to it because there is back matter that might pique their curiosity to learn more about him and pick up his novels. Lauren’s book Nana in the City won a Caldecott Honor, so I was thrilled when we got paired up on this project.
What motivated you to do a book on White?
I think because of his love of nature and animals. I felt a connection to him. I realized there were no picture books on White. That was a eureka moment. I feel like we need more E.B. Whites in this world. We’re so quick to point out what is ugly in this world, and there is a lot. He just wanted to point out what was beautiful. He said, “All I hope to say in books is that I love the world.” I feel that way, too.
This story is supported in part by a grant from the Oregon Cultural Trust, investing in Oregon’s arts, humanities and heritage, and the Lincoln County Cultural Coalition.