Letters to Dead Authors: Jac Jemc to Ellen Raskin

May 1, 2016 — 2 Comments

How does a writer go about constructing such an elaborate puzzle, pacing out the clues without it feeling cheap, tying in character names without hitting the reader over the head with the answer?

Dear Ellen Raskin,

I wanted to write you a note of gratitude for writing The Westing Game, because it felt like a real milestone of a book for me when I was a kid. Even though it was short, it felt challenging and it built my confidence in a major way. I felt ready to read anything after that. But then I got nervous.

What if I’m misremembering? What if the book is full of racism and weak female characters and I was too trapped in the story to notice when I was 9 or however old I was when I read it? I mean, let’s be honest, I’ve only started noticing that sort of stuff in the past decade after years of looking, only now am I beginning to see some of it. Even a whole grade before The Westing Game, when I read Jean Marzollo’s Soccer Sam, whose purpose it is to talk about accepting people from other cultures, I was like, “We can all like something new!” I didn’t get that it was about racism. I was oblivious, but that doesn’t mean those lessons weren’t there, quietly doing their work.

But, you! You accomplish so much with such a light hand. Turtle Wexler, the youngest character in The Westing Game, is a strong, female kid: a whiz at investing, a marvel of self defense tactics, defiant of authority in her refusal to conform to her mother’s prescribed beauty norm, but still sympathetic to her older sister who has fallen prey to that sinister web, Turtle is 100% role model, and your editor, if the story is true, was smart to tell you to amp up her presence. Turtle provides an easy point of access for kids, allows them to believe a kid is on the same level, if not superior to all the adults teaming and scheming throughout the book. But you don’t stop with Turtle. Judge Ford is cast as a single woman of color. The immigrant character, Mrs. Hoo, is way smarter than people give her credit for. The disabled character is multi-faceted and afforded plenty of agency. The book provides opportunities to talk about all of these different identity definers, but the book isn’t actually about any of these issues—they exist as facts of the characters lives, just like in real life.

jacket1As a children’s bookseller at a feminist bookstore in Chicago, parents would often ask for recommendations of books showing kid characters of different races and family structures and economic backgrounds. They were always grateful when I handed them books that weren’t Heather Has Two Mommies or a biography of the childhood of Martin Luther King. They didn’t need an education; they just needed some diversity in the background of the whodunit. Of course, you stopped short of having a queer couple in the book, but you still pushed boundaries, ones that I’m sure seemed risky in 1978, and sadly still bear discussion today. But you let the mystery lead the way, and the details of identity fill up the stakes.

Rereading The Westing Game as an adult, I caught onto some clues of the puzzle a little earlier than I did when I was a kid, like the “America the Beautiful” word game that drives most of the plot, and the delicate wording of the will, but my maturity only allowed me to marvel at these gymnastics all the more. For one: how does a writer go about constructing such an elaborate puzzle, pacing out the clues without it feeling cheap, tying in character names without hitting the reader over the head with the answer. The short version of my question is, “Where did you begin?” You must be an outliner. I’m not, and your book makes me mourn the years I’ve lost not trying to cultivate this skill, not because I think I could approach your genius, but because this book is such a clear example of the value that’s added by structure and surprise, meting out narrative pleasure in such perfect intervals.

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I found a copy of the copious notes you took while planning the book and I’m really just floored by the thought you put into each character’s name and the way you mapped the clues. Even more though, I’m impressed at the extent to which you thought carefully about the design. Of course, you were also an illustrator, so it makes sense that you sketched your idea for the cover early in the process, but you went so much farther: You recommended the margin width to match that of an eleven-year-old’s thumb so they could hold the book open easily. Say what? That takes some some serious UX consideration. You wanted to break up the text, adding lots of line breaks and bullets so that readers could rest their eyes and not become fatigued by monster blocks of text. As an adult reader, I can tell you I appreciate such courtesies even now. My favorite books are generous with the line breaks. It’s an intuitive choice—give people the space to think while they’re reading—but it’s a tactic I use myself now often and always breathe a sigh of relief at finding in the books I pick up to read.

It seems like an obvious thing to say that writing a children’s book is a lot harder than it looks. The pacing has to be spot on. The characters have to be credible and silly at the same time. There’s no option to leave mysteries unsolved or loose ends untied, but lots of pressure to teach lessons and leave the reader with an easily summarized moral. If pressed, The Westing Game could be said to be a book about greed, about the importance of sharing. One might also say it’s about pushing ourselves not to think the lazy thoughts, but to dig deeper: into our consideration of others, as well as into each problem posed to us.

Thank you for writing a book that holds up so well, that was so compassionate and smart, and that demonstrated such faith in your readers. I’m sure I’m not the only child whose confidence was shored up by this book. Thank you.

Your devoted reader,

Jac

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[This is the latest post in the new Letters to Dead Authors series.]

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Jac Jemc is the author of The Grip of It, forthcoming from FSG Originals in 2017. Her first novel, My Only Wife (Dzanc Books) was a finalist for the 2013 PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize for Debut Fiction and winner of the Paula Anderson Book Award, and her collection of stories, A Different Bed Every Time (Dzanc Books) was named one of Amazon’s best story collections of 2014. She edits nonfiction for Hobart.

-1My-Only-Wife

Ellen Raskin
was a writer, illustrator, and designer. She was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and grew up during the Great Depression. She primarily wrote for children. She received the 1979 Newbery Medal for her 1978 book, The Westing Game. Raskin was also an accomplished graphic artist. She designed dozens of dust jackets for books including the first edition of Madeleine L’Engle’s classic A Wrinkle in Time.

 

 

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2 responses to Letters to Dead Authors: Jac Jemc to Ellen Raskin

  1. 
    rebeccameacham May 1, 2016 at 8:00 pm

    Hooray! I love this book, and Ellen Raskin, and Jac Jemc’s post about it captures all the reasons why. Thanks for writing this.

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  1. Vol. 1 Brooklyn | Afternoon Bites: Louise Erdrich Interviewed, Hilton Als, Jac Jemc Nonfiction, Garth Greenwell, and More - May 2, 2016

    […] Jac Jemc on the work of Ellen Raskin. […]

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