Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Smart books for all kids

Ellen Raskin was thinking outside the box before most of us even knew there was a box. A writer, an illustrator, a designer -- she combined them all into a profession she called bookmaking. In her novels, the typeface is as much an element as the mystery/puzzle plot, which is as integral as the wordplay, which also shows up in the illustrations....

When Rebecca Stead’s When You Reach Me won the Newbery Medal in 2010, many critics and readers traced its lineage back not only to the 1963 winner A Wrinkle in Time but also to The Westing Game, a puzzle wrapped in a mystery wrapped in a coming-of-age novel, which won in 1979. Now Dutton has brought back into print Raskin’s three remaining novels: Figgs & Phantoms (1974, and a Newbery Honor Book), The Mysterious Disappearance of Leon (I Mean Noel) (1971), and The Tattooed Potato and Other Clues (1975).

All of them welcome the reader in as a participant in solving the mystery or completing the quest; all of them speak to both head and heart (especially Figgs & Phantoms, one of the most poignant explorations of grief I’ve ever read). They are smart books, but they don’t exclude anybody; they’re for all kids.

-- Martha V. Parravano


  1. Loved Figgs & Phantoms and The Mysterious Disappearance of Leon (I Mean Noel)--and of course The Westing Game. All a lot of fun, I'm so glad they are being reissued. Long overdue, in my opinion. Never read The Tattooed Potato and Other Clues. It's on my list.

  2. I'm fascinated to see Figgs & Phantoms described as a poignant exploration of grief--I remember it more as an exploration of the artist's life. Thanks to your write up, Martha, I'm going to reread it. As for The Westing Game, I reread that every five years or so. I highly recommend that fans seek out the anniversary edition of that book published by Dutton about 8 years ago--it has a memorable foreword written by the book's editor, Ann Durell.