Howard, Ellen 1943–

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Howard, Ellen 1943–


Born May 8, 1943, in New Bern, NC; daughter of Gerald Willis Phillips (a salesman) and Betty Jeane Chord (a banker); married Kermit W. Jensen, June 15, 1963 (divorced June 15, 1969); married Charles F. Howard, Jr. (a grant proposal writer), June 29, 1975; children: (first marriage) Anna Elizabeth; (stepchildren) Cynthia, Laurie, Shaley. Education: At- tended University of Oregon, 1961-63; Portland State University, B.A. (with honors), 1979. Politics: "Liberal Democrat." Religion: Unitarian-Universalist.


Home and office—Salem, OR. E-mail—[email protected].


Writer and educator. Worked in various libraries and offices, 1963-77; Collins Foundation, Portland, OR, secretary, 1980-88; Vermont College M.F.A. Program in Writing for Children and Young Adults, member of adjunct faculty, 1998—; volunteer for various social causes.


Authors Guild, Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators (regional advisor, 1985-88, 1994-97; national board member, 2000-02).


Golden Kite Honor Book, Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators, 1984, for Circle of Giving; Notable Children's Trade Book in the Field of Social Studies, National Council for Social Studies/Children's Book Council, 1985, for When Daylight Comes, 1986, for Gillyflower, and 1988, for Her Own Song; Best Books designation, School Library Journal, 1987, for Edith Herself; Children's Middle Grade Award, International PEN USA Center West, 1989, for Her Own Song; Notable Children's Book selection, American Library Association, 1990, for Sister; Children's Crown Collection honor, National Christian Schools Association, 1993; Christopher Award, and Parents' Choice Gold Award, both 1996, both for The Log Cabin Quilt; SCBWI-Michigan Memorial Award, 1997; Child Study Children's Book Committee of Bank Street College Recommendation for Outstanding Merit, 1997, for A Different Kind of Courage; Smithsonian Notable Book designation, 1999, and Judy Lopez Memorial Award, and Leslie Bradshaw Award for Books for Young Readers (OR), both 2000, all for The Gate in the Wall.


Circle of Giving, Atheneum (New York, NY), 1984.

When Daylight Comes, Atheneum (New York, NY), 1985.

Gillyflower, Atheneum (New York, NY), 1986, reissued as Gilly's Secret, Aladdin, 1993.

Edith Herself, illustrated by Ronald Himler, Atheneum (New York, NY), 1987.

Her Own Song, Atheneum (New York, NY), 1988.

Sister, Atheneum (New York, NY), 1990.

The Chickenhouse House, illustrated by Nancy Oleksa, Atheneum (New York, NY), 1991.

The Cellar, illustrated by Patricia Mulvihill, Atheneum (New York, NY), 1992.

The Big Seed, illustrated by Lillian Hoban, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1993.

The Tower Room, Atheneum (New York, NY), 1993.

Murphy and Kate, illustrated by Mark Graham, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1995.

A Different Kind of Courage (also published as The Children's War), Atheneum (New York, NY), 1996.

The Log Cabin Quilt, illustrated by Ronald Himler, Holiday House (New York, NY), 1996.

The Gate in the Wall, Atheneum (New York, NY), 1999.

The Log Cabin Christmas, illustrated by Ronald Himler, Holiday House (New York, NY), 2000.

The Log Cabin Church, illustrated by Ronald Himler, Holiday House (New York, NY), 2002.

The Log Cabin Wedding, illustrated by Ronald Himler, Holiday House (New York, NY), 2006.

Contributor to periodicals, including The Lion and the Unicorn.


As a child growing up in Portland, Oregon, Ellen Howard dreamed of being a writer. Encouraged by her family to think in more practical terms, she abandoned the notion. She attended college for a few years without earning a degree, and then married and began a family. Some years later, Howard returned to college and earned her bachelor's degree. She also took up writing. She explained in an interview with Cynthia Leitich Smith for Cynsations online that she thought of herself as a "late-bloomer. Although I told and wrote stories from childhood (and gained some familial notoriety for keeping my little brother and sister awake after bedtime with said stories), there was an eighteen-year hiatus between the last story I wrote in high school and the first story I wrote for a college creative writing class." The publication of one of Howard's stories in a magazine encouraged her and, after much hard work and many submissions, her first book, Circle of Giving, was published in 1984. Since the publication of Circle of Giving, Howard has produced a variety of works for young people, including historical novels, stories based on her own family experiences, and problem novels. She has been praised for presenting lively stories in well-researched settings and for her sensitive portrayal of characters facing difficult issues.

Circle of Giving is the story of two young girls who move to Los Angeles in the 1920s. Marguerite, once popular in Oregon, has the most difficulty making friends and adjusting to her new surroundings. Eventually she begins to develop a friendship with Francie, a neighbor with cerebral palsy, and slowly realizes that Francie has the potential to read and write. Marguerite and Francie are soon working together to surprise Francie's mother at a neighborhood Christmas party. According to Karen Stang Hanley in Booklist, Circle of Giving is a "tender, moving story" based on an actual occurrence related to Howard "by her mother and grandmother."

Howard's second book, When Daylight Comes, is historical fiction set in 1733 on one of the U.S. Virgin Islands. In the story, slaves revolt and the ruling Danish government is killed along with all of the white people, except the doctor and the daughter of the magistrate, who is held captive. Helena, the captive girl, narrates the story as she deals with her grief. Noting that the author added just three fictional characters to the story, Tom S. Hurlburt wrote in School Library Journal that "Howard strives to be historically accurate…. When Daylight Comes is good reading, has a solemn and realistic ending and deals with a significant occurrence in the quest for freedom by enslaved blacks."

Her Own Song is a story based on actual events and set in early twentieth-century Portland, Oregon. Mellie, the eleven-year-old protagonist, hesitantly joins her friends as they mock the Chinese man at the laundry, but when her adoptive father has an accident, and her aunt is away on vacation, the Chinese man Geem-Wah helps her. Gradually, from Geem-Wah and her own recovered memories, Mellie learns that she was once a part of the Chinese family's household. Her mother, desperate for money, had sold her to a Chinese couple: Geem Wah's brother and his wife. Mellie was once "Mei-Li" and much loved. It was only later that authorities took her away from them and settled her with her adoptive parents. Despite the prejudice that separates the Chinese community from the white community, Mellie attempts to maintain her new friendship. According to Horn Book critic Margaret A. Bush, Howard's "use of timeless themes to illuminate a particular historical situation is well conceived and executed." Junior Bookshelf commentator Marcus Crouch described Her Own Song as "a remarkable piece of writing," and added: "the intricate details which eventually fit into a kind of jigsaw are cleverly traced, and the feelings of Mellie—Mei-Li—are most sensitively described."

World War II is the setting for A Different Kind of Courage, which is based on efforts to save children during the war. In the story, two French children must escape from Adolph Hitler's Nazi troops. Bertrand leaves Paris with his mother, and Zina stays at a camp until her family is forced to move on. The children end up on the same train, bound to the coast and then to the United States. They do not understand, however, why they have been sent away, and feel abandoned as well as frightened. The work, according to Mary M. Burns in Horn Book, "evokes time and place, and the unusual subject is treated with the sensitivity and insight characteristic of Howard's writing." School Library Journal contributor Ann W. Moore maintained that the novel "gives an interesting and unusual look at World War II."

In the late 1980s, Howard began to publish stories based on her grandmother's experiences. The first, Edith, Herself, is set in the 1890s. Edith is going through a difficult period in her life. Her mother has died, and she must live with her older sister Alena, her sister's strict Christian husband John, their son Vernon, who is close in age to Edith, and John's mother. Adjusting to her new home is made even more difficult when the others discover that Edith has "fits," or epileptic seizures. Epilepsy was not well understood in the 1890s, and Edith's family must decide whether she can attend school given her condition. Roger Sutton, writing in the Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, appreciated Howard's "complex characterizations," her "lyrical prose," as well as her "infusion of great drama into the quietest scenes." After noting Edith's "inner toughness," Crouch predicted in Junior Bookshelf that "many small girls will respect and warm to the strength of this heroine."

Sister, published after Edith, Herself, is set in an earlier period, before Edith is born, when Alena is still living at home in Illinois in 1886. Since the father of the family is away, and Alena's mother has many children to care for, twelve-year-old Alena has a great deal of responsibility. There are meals to prepare and laundry to finish, in addition to caring for the children. Alena is also a good student and dreams of going to Normal School. When her mother gives birth, Alena, who knows nothing about her body or babies, must assist; although terrified by much of the process, she marvels at the result, and grieves when the baby dies days later. Depressed by the death of the child, Alena's mother cannot work, and Alena must give up school to run the household. "This is a slow paced, thoughtful treatment of a year of growth and change in one young woman's life," wrote Christine Prevetti in Voice of Youth Advocates. Ethel R. Twichell remarked in a Horn Book review of Sister that Howard provides "a convincing portrayal of a sturdy and appealing heroine." The novelist "manages to instill excitement and momentum into the drama of everyday life," concluded Zena Sutherland in her review for the Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books.

The Tower Room deals with grief and recovery, and also touches on the subject of abortion. The story centers on fifth-grader Mary, whose mother has died. The year is 1953, and Mary is living with her Aunt Olive in a Michigan town. Without the overt love of her aunt, or of her classmates at school, Mary takes solace in the tower room, a sealed-off room in Olive's house to which she has found another entrance. One day, a girl tells Mary that her mother died as the result of having an abortion; Mary runs from school and hides in the tower room. When she hears her aunt crying, Mary reveals herself and, as Donna Houser noted in the Voice of Youth Advocates, her aunt realizes that "both of them have some ghosts in their past that should be discussed." According to a Kirkus Reviews critic, The Tower Room is "unusually engaging" and has "a real heartwarmer of a conclusion."

When asked by Leitich Smith to explain what it is about historical fiction that sparked her imagination, Howard replied: "From the time when my grandparents, who lived with us, were telling about their childhoods and my mother was telling about hers, I have been imagining the past. Now, even my own childhood is historical! In 1993, I published The Tower Room, which was set in the year 1953, when I was ten years old. I was astonished when reviewers called it ‘historical fiction!’"

The Gate in the Wall is set in early Victorian England in the world of the laborers who work on the shipping canals. Ten-year-old orphan Emma is forced to perform factory labor as a spinner of silk. Though the work is hard, she makes very little money. When Emma is locked out of work for being late, she begins looking for other options, and soon finds herself working for a boatwoman named Mrs. Minshull. Emma finds herself loading and unloading cargo and guiding Mrs. Minshull's boats through the locks and canals. "Howard has created a cast of characters who are fully dimensional and engaging," wrote a Horn Book critic, while Hazel Rochman commented in Booklist that "readers will be gripped by the social history."

Along with her historical fiction, Howard has written several novels on more contemporary issues. Gillyflower takes up the sensitive issue of sexual abuse. Gilly's life is difficult now that her father is out of work and her mother must work evenings at the hospital. Gilly must keep the house clean and care for her sister Honey, and also deal with the sexual predations of her father, which she does not completely understand. As a way of coping, she imagines the existence of a beautiful, good princess named Juliana. When another family moves in next door, Gilly develops a friendship with her new neighbor Mary Rose, and comes to realize that what her father is doing to her is wrong. When she perceives a threat to her sister Honey, she brings herself to tell her mother what has happened. She does not need Juliana any more. "Gilly's story is developed sensitively and crafted capably," commented Betsy Hearne in the Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books. A Publishers Weekly critic asserted that the strength of the book is that it "is no sugar-coated parable."

On a lighter note, Howard has also written picture books and chapter books for younger children. Two of these involve characters she first introduces in Edith, Herself and Sister. The Chickenhouse House, a chapter book for readers in grades two to four, features Alena as a young child. Alena's family leaves her grandfather's house for a new farm an hour away. As their house is not ready, the family must live in a small building which they intend to make into a chicken house. Although Alena is initially disturbed by these developments, by the time the new home is ready it too seems odd. According to Burns, Howard's "narrative … provides a sense of family solidarity" and "the joys of simple pleasures." School Library Journal contributor Virginia Golodetz similarly maintained that The Chickenhouse House is a "warm family story about a universal experience [that] is sure to please young and beginning readers."

The Cellar is also based on the childhood of Howard's grandmother. In this story, Faith (another of Alena and Edith's sisters) is teased by her brothers as she attempts to do what they do. She proves her bravery and competence by making her way into the dark root cellar to bring her family apples for a treat. Praising the portrayal of nineteenth-century farm life, a Kirkus Reviews critic described the story as "beautifully crafted." Similarly, a Publishers Weekly critic noted that in The Cellar Howard "evokes the simple pleasures of rural life of a century ago."

Murphy and Kate is another book for younger children that follows the growth of a baby named Kate and her puppy companion, Murphy. The two play together and learn together until Kate begins school. Even then, they remain the best of friends. One day, returning home from school, fourteen-year-old Kate finds that Murphy is not around, waiting for her as he usually does. Kate finds Murphy just in time to say good-bye. Murphy and Kate is "a sensitive, honest focus on coping with the loss of a beloved pet," concluded Ellen Mandel in Booklist, and School Library Journal contributor Marianne Saccardi recommended the book as "a comforting story for children experiencing a similar loss."

Beginning with The Log Cabin Quilt, Howard has written a series of books about a girl named Elvira who, after her mother's death, moves with her family in a covered wagon. Her new life in Michigan is not what Elvira expected, and she longs for her mother's presence. However, when the family is in danger of freezing, it is Elvira's idea of using their scrap cloth to caulk the cabin walls that saves the day. "This expressive picture book brings the past to life," wrote Carolyn Phelan in a Booklist review of The Log Cabin Quilt. Also featuring illustrations by Ronald Himler, The Log Cabin Christmas finds Elvira's family celebrating their first Christmas since the death of her mother, although there is not enough money for stockings or treats. Forbidden from talking about it, Elvira develops a plan to bring a little bit of Christmas to their new home. In School Library Journal, a reviewer called the story "an insightful glimpse of how simple comforts and family love can define Christmas."

Because they have not been to church in so long, Elvira has trouble remembering what church was like in The Log Cabin Church, a book set the spring following Elvira's Christmas. Though Granny longs for a church, planting the fields takes priority over building a new building. However, one Sunday, Elvira's father takes the day off and dresses in his Sunday clothes, their neighbors come to share worship, and Elvira remembers what church is really about. "Howard's use of old-fashioned vocabulary and dialect … adds to the authenticity," wrote Kay Weisman in a review for Booklist. In The Log Cabin Wedding Elvira's father and the neighboring Widow Aiken announce their intentions to marry. Elvira is furious, unwilling to accept Widow Aiken and her sons into her family. However, when Widow Aiken offers to teach the young girl to read, Elvira realizes that this new step-family might have something to offer. Young readers "will relate to Elvira's first-person narrative," wrote Pat Leach in School Library Journal.

When asked by Leitich Smith what advice she offered young writers, Howard replied that she could only offer advice most young writers had already heard. "The truth is, we learn to write by reading and writing," she said. She also encouraged budding writers to establish a career doing something that would leave energy for writing. "We can always make time to write, if we care enough to do so. But we need to leave ourselves the energy, the emotional stamina and the quiet that are the real necessities of the writing life."

Howard, who makes her home in Oregon, continues to write for children. She once commented that the joy of writing a book "goes on and on, as we watch our book go out into the world in the same way we watch our children grow up. Sometimes we doubt that we have done as well as we could have. Sometimes we feel so proud! But always we know that we have done something important. That is the thing about writing. It is an important thing to do."



Booklist, May 15, 1984, Karen Stang Hanley, review of Circle of Giving, pp. 1343-1344; May 1, 1995, Ellen Mandel, review of Murphy and Kate, p. 1580; December 15, 1996, review of The Log Cabin Quilt, p. 731; February 15, 1999, Hazel Rochman, review of The Gate in the Wall, p. 1070; April 15, 2000, Barbara Baskin, review of The Gate in the Wall, p. 1561; November 15, 2000, Shelley Townsend-Hudson, review of The Log Cabin Christmas, p. 648; October 1, 2002, Kay Weisman, review of The Log Cabin Church, p. 345; September 15, 2006, Hazel Rochman, review of The Log Cabin Wedding, p. 71.

Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, November, 1986, Betsy Hearne, review of Gillyflower, p. 51; May, 1987, Roger Sutton, review of Edith, Herself, p. 169; December, 1990, Zena Sutherland, review of Sister, p. 87; May, 1999, review of The Gate in the Wall, p. 316; November, 2000, review of The Log Cabin Christmas, p. 106.

Horn Book, November-December, 1988, Margaret A. Bush, review of Her Own Song, p. 783; November-December, 1990, Ethel R. Twichell, review of Sister, pp. 749-750; July-August 1991, Mary M. Burns, review of The Chickenhouse House, p. 453; November-December, 1996, Mary M. Burns, review of A Different Kind of Courage, p. 736; March, 1999, review of The Gate in the Wall, p. 208; May, 2000, Kristi Beavin, review of The Gate in the Wall, p. 341.

Junior Bookshelf, February, 1989, Marcus Crouch, review of Edith, Herself, p. 29; December, 1989, review of Her Own Song, p. 296.

Kirkus Reviews, April 15, 1992, review of The Cellar, p. 538; September 1, 1993, review of The Tower Room, p. 1146; August 1, 2002, review of The Log Cabin Church, p. 1133; October 1, 2006, review of The Log Cabin Wedding, p. 1016.

Publishers Weekly, August 22, 1986, review of Gillyflower, pp. 99-100; April 6, 1992, review of The Cellar, p. 65; March 15, 1999, review of The Gate in the Wall, p. 59.

School Library Journal, November, 1985, Tom S. Hurlburt, review of When Daylight Comes, p. 86; July, 1991, Virginia Golodetz, review of The Chickenhouse House, p. 58; June, 1992, p. 115; June, 1995, Marianne Saccardi, review of Murphy and Kate, p. 87; November, 1996, Ann W. Moore, review of A Different Kind of Courage, pp. 106-107; March, 1999, Carol Fazioli, review of The Gate in the Wall, p. 210; October, 2000, review of The Log Cabin Christmas, p. 59; October, 2002, Margaret Bush, review of The Log Cabin Church, p. 112; December, 2006, Pat Leach, review of The Log Cabin Wedding, p. 101.

Voice of Youth Advocates, December, 1990, Christine Prevetti, review of Sister, p. 284; December, 1993, Donna Houser, review of The Tower Room, p. 293.


Cynsations Online, (April 12, 2006), Cynthia Leitich Smith, interview with Howard.

Ellen Howard Home Page, (November 20, 2007).

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Howard, Ellen 1943–

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