Wittlinger, Ellen 1948-
Wittlinger, Ellen 1948-
Born October 21, 1948, in Belleville, IL; daughter of Karl (a grocer) and Doris (a grocer and secretary) Wittlinger; married David Pritchard (a reference-book editor), June 23, 1978; children: Kate, Morgan. Education: Millikin University, B.A., 1970; University of Iowa, M.F.A., 1973. Politics: Democrat. Hobbies and other interests: Photography, theater, folk music, gardening.
Home and office—Western MA. E-mail—[email protected]
Writer, 1970—. Swampscott Public Library, Swampscott, MA, children's librarian, 1989-92; Emerson College, Boston, MA, writing instructor.
Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators, Swampscott Cultural Council (member, 1983-86, 1994-98), Friends of the Swampscott Library (second vice president, 1992—).
Finalist, Massachusetts artists fellowship, 1980 and 1983, both for poetry, and 1989, for playwriting; Best Book for Young Adults selection, and Recommended Book for the Reluctant Reader selection, both American Library Association (ALA), both 1994, both for Lombardo's Law; Michael R. Printz Honor Book designation, Lambda Literary Book Award, and Best Books for Young Adults selection and Quick Picks for Reluctant Readers selection, both ALA, all for Hard Love; Best Books for Young Adults selection, ALA, 2001, for What's in a Name; New York Public Library Books for the Teen Age designation, Patterson Prize for Books for Young People, Bank Street College of Education Best Children's Books of the Year designation, and YALSA Best Book for Young Adults designation, all 2002, all for Razzle; New York Public Library Books for the Teen Age designation, 2002, for The Long Night of Leo and Bree; Dorothy Canfield Fisher Award finalist and William Allen White Award finalist, both 2002, both for Gracie's Girl; Bank Street College Best Books designation, 2003, New York Public Library Books for the Teen Age designation, and YALSA Best Books for Young Adults designation, all for ZigZag; New York Public Library Books for the Teen Age designation, 2005, for Heart on My Sleeve; New York Public Library Books for the Teen Age designation, CCBC Choice designation, and YALSA Best Book for Young Adults designation, all 2006, all for Sandpiper; New York Public Library Books for the Teen Age designation, and YALSA Best Book for Young Adults designation, both 2007, and Keystone State Reading Association Book Award, 2008, all for Blind Faith; New York Public Library Books for the Teen Age designation, for Parrotfish.
Lombardo's Law, Houghton (Boston, MA), 1993.
Noticing Paradise, Houghton (Boston, MA), 1995.
Hard Love, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1999.
What's in a Name, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 2000.
Gracie's Girl, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 2000.
Razzle, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 2001.
The Long Night of Leo and Bree, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 2002.
ZigZag, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 2003.
Heart on My Sleeve, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 2004.
Sandpiper, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 2005.
Blind Faith, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 2006.
Parrotfish, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 2007.
Love and Lies (sequel to Hard Love), Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 2008.
Contributor of short stories to anthologies, including On the Edge, edited by Lois Duncan, Simon & Schuster, 2000; Shelf Life: Stories by the Book, edited by Gary Paulsen, Simon & Schuster, 2003; and Thirteen: Thirteen Stories That Capture the Agony and Ecstasy of Being Thirteen, edited by James Howe, Simon Pulse, 2007. Contributor to periodicals, including Plough-shares, Antioch Review, and Iowa Review.
Breakers (poetry), Sheep Meadow Press, 1979.
One Civilized Person (play), produced in Boston, MA, 1982.
Coffee (play), produced in Swampscott, MA, 1985.
In award-winning novels such as Lombardo's Law, What's in a Name, Sandpiper, and Love and Lies, Ellen Wittlinger explores the adolescent landscape through the eyes of outsiders and loners. "I find I'm most interested in those kids who are on the fringes," the author once noted, "the slight oddballs and lovable misfits who aren't quite comfortable in their own skins, or if they are, their differentness makes those around them uncomfortable. I want to celebrate their differences because they are likely to be the most fascinating people the rest of us will ever know." Wittlinger's protagonists are often artists in the making: writers, photographers, and filmmakers, "the kids with their ears to the ground, the ones who can tell us secrets," she added. "In my experience, that kind of person is often an artist of one kind or another."
Raised in Belleville, Illinois, Wittlinger was the only child of a couple who operated a small neighborhood grocery store. Much of the time she was under the care of a grandparent, but her Uncle Walt, a roving jazz musician, gave her a glimpse of a bigger world on his occasional visits to town. Apart from Walt's visits, books filled her world and she became a regular at the local library. She also found a much needed friend in her family pet, a Welsh corgi named Penny. "I think having the dog helped me move from loneliness to an enjoyment of being alone," Wittlinger later recalled.
By high school Wittlinger had become certain that art was her destiny; at the same time, she graduated from reading mushy romances to the stage plays of Eugene O'Neill and Tennessee Williams as well as poetry. She attended Millikin University in Decatur, Illinois, where she majored in art and sociology and was mentored by a young teacher and his wife, who encouraged her writing efforts. After graduation, she moved west to Ashland, Oregon, and found work putting ads together for the small town's local newspaper. Accepted to the graduate program at the University of Iowa's Writers' Workshop, she reluctantly left Oregon to pursue this new goal.
At Iowa Wittlinger learned fictional techniques of plot, setting, and characterization, as well as verse models. "This was … the first time in my life I had been identified as a writer," she later remarked. "Just the fact of being in the program at Iowa empowered me to be able to say to people, ‘I'm a writer.’" Another benefit of the program was the people she met there, including a young short-story writer named David Pritchard, who would later become her husband.
From Iowa, Wittlinger moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts, and worked at a variety of part-time jobs while pursuing a writing career. Fellowships at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Massachusetts, from 1974 to 1976 gave her the time she needed to find her voice, both in poetry and in playwriting. Marrying Pritchard in 1978, Wittlinger and her husband moved to Boston, where they could more easily find work. Her first publication, Breakers, a book of poetry, was published in 1979, not long before her first child, Kate, was born.
Wittlinger became a full-time mom with the birth of her second child, son Morgan. "I wanted to be with my children when they were young, but also … I could sometimes sneak in a few hours of writing now and then," she explained, adding that poetry and plays increasingly captured her creative attention. Two of her plays for adults, One Civilized Person and Coffee, were produced by local theatrical groups, and Wittlinger had hopes of larger productions. However, the more she became involved with theater, the more she began to understand that such a career would take her away from home and from her family too much.
When her son started school, Wittlinger took a job as children's librarian at the local library in Swampscott, the town where she now lives. Soon she became self-educated in the world of children's literature, more specifically in young-adult (YA) novels by Brock Cole, M.E. Kerr, Katherine Paterson, Gary Paulson, Avi, and Lois Lowry. "It seemed to me they took the YA genre and pulled it in new directions," Wittlinger once recalled. "And I wanted to try it too."
Wittlinger's first young-adult novel, Lombardo's Law, focuses on Justine Trainor, a shy, intelligent, fifteen-year-old loner whose mother would like her to have more friends. As a result, the woman introduces her daughter to Heather and Mike, two sibilings who are new to the neighborhood. Justine is quickly snubbed by Heather, a beautiful, boy-crazy teen who easily adjusts to life in her new high school. However, Mike, a thirteen-year-old middle-schooler, becomes a close friend to Justine due to common interests and a shared desire to make a movie. As the two teens work on writing and filming a screenplay together, romantic feelings begin to develop. Justine and Mike have a difficult time concealing their fondness from each other, as well as from people at school, and their relationship eventually proves awkward and confusing due to their age difference. Reviewing Lombard's Law in Horn Book, Nancy Vasilakis remarked that Justine's "qualms over this social transgression will seem much more compelling and real to young teens than other more serious problems" that are common topics in YA literature. Lucinda Snyder Whitehurst wrote in School Library Journal that, "beyond entertainment, the story's value lies in its message of reassurance to young teens who feel out of step with their peers," and Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books contributor Kathryn Jennings concluded that Lombard's Law "not only strikes at a real dating issue for teenagers, but also has a plot that is satisfying and not too crowded."
Noticing Paradise is based on a trip Wittlinger and her family took to Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands. The novel takes place on a boat tour in the Galapagos and involves the mysterious disappearance of endangered tortoises. Two lonely sixteen-year-olds, Cat and Noah, alternately narrate the action in first-person accounts that sometimes differ as they describe the series of dramatic events that propel them into a romantic relationship. Noah, from Massachusetts, begins to question all that he was taught and all that he believes after his parent's divorce unhinges his reality. Cat, from Oregon, is a reclusive and sheltered child who has never been on a date. Because he is too involved in his own pain, Noah does not notice the paradise all around him on the tour until Cat "wakes him up and makes him see," according to Booklist reviewer Hazel Rochman. The teens' romance is powered by a plot involving stolen endangered tortoises and a near drowning. "Wittlinger breaks new ground in YA romance," Rochman further noted, calling the book's dialogue "lively and immediate." Sharon Neff, reviewing the novel in Voice of Youth Advocates, wrote that despite a "flatness" in Wittlinger's characters, Noticing Paradise benefits from a "naturalist's view of a world of scientific and cultural significance."
Hard Love features another sixteen-year-old boy torn apart by his parents' divorce. John is having trouble coping until he begins publishing a zine called Bananafish. Here he shares his feelings about the divorce and his changed role in relation to each of his parents. When John meets Marisol Guzman, another zine writer, the two troubled teens feel an attraction for each other. On Marisol's part this can go only so far, as she explains in telling John that she is a lesbian. John cannot help himself, however; he finds himself falling in love with Marisol despite his attempt to ignore his emotions. "John's simmering passions for Marisol, which come to a full boil at the prom, predictably lead to disaster," remarked a reviewer for Publishers Weekly. In a School Library Journal review of the novel, Dina Sherman observed that "teen angst is always a popular route for young adult literature, and Wittlinger has successfully created an intense example here." Hard Love "is a smart addition to YA collections," concluded the critic.
Wittlinger continues Marisols' story in Love and Lies, which begins weeks after the conclusion of Hard Love. After postponing her freshman year at Stanford, the eighteen-year-old moves to Cambridge, Massachusetts, where she intends to focus on her writing while rooming temporarily with her best friend. Enrolled in an adult-ed writing class, Marisol becomes captivated by Olivia, her charismatic writing teacher. Flattered by Olivia's attention, Marisol is unable to see the negative aspects of the growing relationship and perceive that she is being manipulated by the older woman. In Kirkus Reviews a critic dubbed Love and Lies "a rich and solid representation of a girl on the cusp of maturity."
Wittlinger deals with homelessness in Gracie's Girl, which finds middle-schooler Bess volunteering to work on the school musical. A shy girl, Bess hopes that such involvement will help her be accepted by her classmates, but when she and a friend get to know an elderly homeless woman named Gracie, the preteen begins to rethink what is truly important in life. A Publishers Weekly reviewer called Gracie's Girl "bittersweet" and "convincing" in its portrayal of Bess's friendship with Gracie. While Rochman noted that Wittlinger's tale is somewhat "didactic," she praised Wittlinger for conveying "a strong message" that is ultimately "neither simplistic nor sweet." Catherine T. Quattlebaum, writing in School Library Journal, described Bess as "engaging and believable," noting that the preteen's interests in fashion, romance, and her commitment to the school play "round out this perceptive, realistic novel."
ZigZag finds Iowa teen Robin losing her boyfriend prematurely when he leaves for Italy during the summer following high-school graduation. When the opportunity arises to join her aunt and two younger cousins on a road trip to Los Angeles, she takes it, benefiting from an increased appreciation for both her country and her own strengths along the way. Noting Robin's "wry, likeable" narrative voice, Gillian Engberg added in her Booklist review of the novel that "Wittlinger elevates the familiar [road-trip story] into a moving, realistic exploration of first love, class issues, girls' self-confidence, and the process of healing." "As with many long road trips," wrote Horn Book contributor Christine M. Heppermann, Robin's journey in ZigZag "is a crucible—excruciating one moment, exhilarating the next, and hard to walk away from unchanged."
Fifteen-year-old Liz Scattergood makes a journey of another sort in Blind Faith, as a friendship with a young neighbor named Nathan helps her deal with the recent death of her beloved grandmother as well as her mother's depression and involvement with a fringe church that she believes can help her contact her deceased mother. While the two teens turn to each other for comfort, Nathan has his own burdens—his mom is dying of leukemia—and ultimately each is able to tap into their own inner strength. Calling Blind Faith a "heartfelt" novel, a Publishers Weekly contributor added that Wittlinger "tenderly explores how grief affects individuals differently." Claire E. Gross concluded in Horn Book that Wittlinger's "finely shaded characters and unexpected yet organic moments of humor ground the novel in real life and keep the pages turning," and Kliatt contributor Claire Rosser wrote that the author—"always tops at hard-hitting, realistic fiction—delivers another story of teenagers' self-discovery in a difficult world" in Blind Faith.
A tense drama unfolds in the alternating first-person narratives that comprise The Long Night of Leo and Bree. In the story, eighteen-year-old Leo is pushed by a mentally ill mother and his own demons into kidnapping a wealthy young woman named Bree. Although he intends to murder Bree, as a way to deal with his confused and disordered anger over his own sister's brutal death a year earlier, through the young woman's compassionate counsel Leo starts to clear his emotions during their long night together. Calling The Long Night of Leo and Bree a "terse, powerful novel" in the tradition of YA novelist Robert Cormier, Horn Book contributor Susan P. Bloom added that the novel resolves itself in "ironic humor as [its teen protagonists] … talk themselves through the night to a new sense of empowerment and healing." "With its strong, believable emotions and direct, clear writing," The Long Night of Leo and Bree "will speak to young adult readers," concluded Gail Richmond in School Library Journal. "Always tops at hard-hitting, realistic fiction," Wittlinger "delivers another story of teenagers' self-discovery in a difficult world," maintained a Kirkus Reviews writer in reviewing the "compelling" work.
Readers meet Piper, a teen poet who is viewed as the black sheep in her perfect family, in Sandpiper. Turning to a succession of brief and personally destructive relationships with boys in an effort to find acceptance, Piper attempts to stop the cycle through her friendship with a young man the locals have dubbed the Walker because he is always seen wandering the streets with no seeming destination. As their friendship grows stronger, Piper and the young eccentric aid each other in confronting the fears and insecurities that have imprisoned them both. "Wittlinger tackles the subject of the ‘school slut’ with compassion," concluded Gross, the Horn Book critic adding that "Piper's unapologetic self-ownership and defensive wit" balances "with her intrinsic empathy to create a unique, compelling heroine."
Wittlinger takes on an unusual and controversial subject in Parrotfish. Born a girl named Angela, Grady McNair feels more comfortable as a boy, despite the problems that arise due to the misunderstanding and lack of tolerance exhibited by family and friends. Making the shift during his junior year of high school, the transgendered teen must deal with even more challenges, from choosing the appropriate restroom to coping with the jeers of insensitive classmates who remember his former female identity. Noting the author's ability to "untangle … the complexities of gender identity" in her story, Michael Cart added in Booklist that Wittlinger "manages to create a story sufficiently nonthreatening to appeal to—and enlighten—a broad range of readers" in her novel. In Publishers Weekly a contributor noted the significance of the novel in increasing understanding about gender issues, writing that Parrotfish "demonstrates well the complexity faced by transgendered people and makes the teen's frustration with having to ‘fit into a category’ fully apparent." Calling Parrotfish "groundbreaking," Gross praised Wittlinger's teen protagonist as "both recognizable and likable—an awkward, slightly insecure, occasionally eloquent kid devoted to family and friends, just trying to figure out where he fits in the world."
For Wittlinger, the growing pains of adolescence are all too real and present. "I sometimes tell people I never got over being thirteen," she once wrote. "I got kind of stuck back there. But I don't only mean stuck with that feeling of being an oddball kid, with not quite the right looks or interests to fit in … but also I never quite got over what's so good about being thirteen. At that age … we're still optimistic, the world is right in front of us waiting to be embraced, and we have unlimited hope that it will open its arms to us as well…. This is why I love writing young adult novels. Who lives a more exciting life than a teenager just moving from the safety of home and family into the wide world of emotional possibilities? It's the equivalent of boarding one of the first manned spacecrafts. And yet teenagers rush enthusiastically into this rare atmosphere, as they have always done and will always do. I hope only to show them there have been others there before them and they have survived."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Something about the Author Autobiography Series, Volume 25, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1998.
Booklist, November 1, 1995, Hazel Rochman, review of Noticing Paradise, p. 464; September 15, 2000, Hazel Rochman, review of Gracie's Girl, p. 244; November 1, 2001, Gillian Engberg, review of Razzle, p. 477; January 1, 2002, Ilene Cooper, review of The Long Night of Leo and Bree, p. 846; September 1, 2003, Gillian Engberg, review of ZigZag, p. 115; July, 2004, Gillian Engberg, review of Heart on My Sleeve, p. 1838; June 1, 2005, Hazel Rochman, review of Sandpiper, p. 1792; June 1, 2006, Gillian Engberg, review of Blind Faith, p. 64; April 15, 2007, Michael Cart, review of Parrotfish, p. 40.
Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, October, 1993, Kathryn Jennings, review of Lombardo's Law, p. 63; September, 2005, Karen Coats, review of Sandpiper, p. 56; July-August, 2006, Deborah Stevenson, review of Blind Faith, p. 524; September, 2007, April Spisak, review of Parrotfish, p. 61.
Horn Book, November, 1993, Nancy Vasilakis, review of Lombardo's Law, p. 748; November-December, 2001, Lauren Adams, review of Razzle, p. 758; March-April, 2002, Susan P. Bloom, review of TheLong Night of Leo and Bree, p. 221; July-August, 2003, Christine M. Heppermann, review of ZigZag, p. 469; September-October, 2004, Jennifer M. Brabander, review of Heart on My Sleeve, p. 601; November-December, 2005, Claire E. Gross, review of Sandpiper, p. 728; July-August, 2006, Claire E. Gross, review of Blind Faith, p. 454; July-August, 2007, Claire E. Gross, review of Parrotfish, p. 407.
Kirkus Reviews, August 15, 2001, review of Razzle, p. 1223; January 15, 2002, review of The Long Night of Leo and Bree, p. 112; July 1, 2003, review of ZigZag, p. 917; June 15, 2004, review of Heart on My Sleeve, p. 583; June 1, 2007, review of Parrotfish; June 1, 2008, review of Love and Lies.
Kliatt, May, 2003, Claire Rosser, review of Razzle, p. 22; July, 2004, Claire Rosser, review of Heart on My Sleeve, p. 13; March, 2005, Claire Rosser, review of ZigZag, p. 24; July, 2005, Claire Rosser, review of Sandpiper, p. 17; July, 2007, Claire Rosser, review of Parrotfish, p. 21; January, 2008, Claire Rosser, review of Blind Faith, p. 17.
Publishers Weekly, June 21, 1999, review of Hard Love, p. 69; November 13, 2000, review of Gracie's Girl, p. 104; February 18, 2002, review of The Long Night of Leo and Bree, p. 97; July 28, 2003, review of ZigZag, p. 96; June 21, 2004, review of Heart on My Sleeve, p. 64; June 5, 2006, review of Blind Faith, p. 64; July 15, 2007, review of Parrotfish, p. 167.
School Library Journal, September, 1993, Lucinda Snyder Whitehurst, review of Lombardo's Law, pp.253-254; June, 1999, Dina Sherman, review of Hard Love, p. 102; November, 2000, Catherine T. Quattlebaum, review of Gracie's Girl, p. 165; September, 2001, Renee Steinberg, review of Razzle, p. 235; March, 2002, Gail Richmond, review of The Long Night of Leo of Bree, p. 240; August, 2003, Jane Halsall, review of ZigZag, p. 169; August, 2004, Francisca Goldsmith, review of Heart on My Sleeve, p. 132; July, 2005, Susan W. Hunter, review of Sandpiper, p. 111; September, 2006, Beth Gallego, review of Blind Faith, p. 222; September, 2007, Cara von Wrangel Kinsey, review of Parrotfish, p. 211.
Voice of Youth Advocates, February, 1996, Sharon Neff, review of Noticing Paradise, p. 380; April, 2000, Mary Ann Capan, review of What's in a Name, pp. 41-42; February, 2002, review of The Long Night of Leo and Bree, p. 441; October, 2003, review of ZigZag, p. 320; August, 2004, review of Heart on My Sleeve, p. 226; August, 2005, Valerie Ott, review of Sandpiper, p. 228; August, 2007, Jamie S. Hansen, review of Parrotfish, p. 250.
Ellen Wittlinger Home Page,http://www.ellenwittlinger.com (June 15, 2008).