It is the book that is the important thing, not who I am or how I did it, but the book. Not me, the book. . . It is the book that lives, not the author.
Ellen Raskin has gotten her wish. During her life, she considered herself a “bookmaker” or an “artist” before writer; she illustrated over 100o book covers (including A Wrinkle Through Time).
The fact that her name today is synonymous with “children’s mysteries” is based almost solely on one book. The Westing Game not only managed to win the Newbury in 1979, but remains both in print and popular 3o years later. Today when kids have read 39 Clues or Chasing Vermeer and want more, librarians, teachers, and parents around the country can smile mysteriously and hand over The Westing Game. The novel was so popular that there was even (unfortunately) a movie:The Westing Game (aka Get a Clue)
The late 1970s turns out to be an excellent run for the Newbery’s: Bridge to Terebithia and Roll of Thunder, Hear my Cry won the preceding years. Both Katherine Patterson and Mildred D. Taylor went on to have long and distinguished careers (Patterson would win again in 1981). Raskin’s masterpiece, The Westing Game, by contrast came at the end of a career where, despite a previous Newbery Honor, she was at least as well-known as a book illustrator as opposed to an author. That she died rather young robbed us too of the possibility of other books; The Westing Game would be her last novel. In this way Raskin is a bit of an anomaly, remembered for one book that is still a popular choice by children and adults, yet most fans of the Westing Game would be hard pressed to name another of her books, and know little of her. It is the book that lives, not the author.
So let’s get to know the author a little better through her work. Many of her earlier picture books can be found or ordered from libraries, still as fresh and enchanting to young readers as the day they were published. The love of puzzles and word play that exist in her novels are equally evident here; Moose, Goose, and
Little Nobody relies on a clever ambigram,
Who Said Sue, Said Whoo? a palindrome. But it is her novels that Raskin’s reputation will probably rest upon; Biographer Marilynn Strasser Olson thought the shift in format was related to stiffness on Raskins’s hands, complications from the illness that would eventually take her life. Whatever the reason, the four novels that followed have been fondly remembered (check reviews on Amazon) despite three of them being long out of reprint. Last year Puffin reprinted the novels, introducing The Most Disappearance of Leon (I Mean Noel), The Tattooed Potato and Other Clues, and Figgs & Phantoms to a new generation of readers.
And of course The Westing Game (1978). If you are not familiar with it, go RIGHT NOW and find a copy. In fact find all of Raskins novels. Perhaps that is the best answer to confron the mystery of who Ellen Raskin is; her work. When someone asks you who they can read that’s just like The Westing Game, simply give them the rest of Raskin’s novel’s. Because no one tells a mystery like Ellen Raskin.
I try to say one thing with my work: A book is a wonderful place to be. A book is a package, a gift package, a surprise package – and within the wrapping is a whole new world and beyond.
For futhur information:
Kruse, Ginny Moore. Ellen Raskin, Notable Wisconsin Author (http://www.education.wisc.edu/ccbc/authors/raskin/main.htm#bio)
Olson, Marilynn Strasser. Ellen Raskin (1991). Twayne Publishers: Boston
Next Week: a review of Raskin’s newly republished novels!