Top 100 Children’s Novels (#11)
A quick note before we begin . . . you have until midnight tonight (today is Monday the 29th) to get in your guesses to me of what the Top 10 on this list is. Folks who get all the books and IN THE RIGHT ORDER will win a fabulous prize, to be determined by me.
#11 The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin (1978)
(#1)(#1)(#1)(#1)(#1)(#1)(#1)(#2) (#2)(#2)(#2)(#2)(#3)(#3)(#3)(#3) (#3)(#3)(#4)(#4)(#4)(#5)(#5)(#5) (#6)(#6)(#7)(#8)(#8)(#8)(#8)(#8) (#8)(#8)(#9)(#9)(#9)(#9)(#10)(#10) (#10) – 248 points
WHY? Because it is the best mystery ever written, for adults or kids. – Walter M. Mayes
This is always the first book I hand a kid who asks for a mystery, and sometimes even if they don’t ask for a mystery. I remember my brain hurting when I read it when I was young, and upon rereading it as an adult, found the mystery to be just as compelling and twisty as I remembered. – Mark Flowers, John F. Kennedy Library, Vallejo, CA
As a child reading this book (30 years ago), I was so amazed by the characters. I didn’t know it was ok show adults as selfish, mean people who made bad decisions. The kids are alright! – Tanya (books4yourkids.com)
This book is such a great puzzle. When I was 10, I couldn’t quite put it together all on my own, but I found it so gratifying that when I went back through it, all of the clues were there the whole time. – Amy S. Lappin, Children’s Librarian, Lebanon Libraries, Lebanon, NH
I admit that I originally picked this up because Claudia from the Babysitter’s Club was reading it, and I thought, with my fourth grade brain, that it would make me seem older and wiser to be reading a book on an eighth grade reading list. But I continue to reread this intriguing mystery every few years, long after I’ve outgrown the BC books, and even long after I know the solution to the mystery. I think one of the key factors in determining the greatness of a mystery book is simply: are you just as interested in re-reading the book once the mystery has been solved and that dynamic tension is no longer pushing you forward to turn the page? The Westing Game delivers. – Ann Carpenter, Youth Services Librarian, Brooks Free Library
I still remember the debates my friends had about this when we read it in 5th grade for class. Also, our ideas on what an apartment building would look like still amuse me to this day. – Jennifer Rothschild
Turtle and the other residents of the apartment complex…practically a Christopher Guest movie. – Schuyler Hooke
I was once at a Books of Wonder Christmas party when Peter Glassman started popping some children’s literature trivia at me. I correctly answered his question about Evaline Ness, but then he asked a question that just baffled me. "What is the only Newbery winning jacket illustrated by someone who would later go on to win their own Newbery?" I was stumped. Couldn’t for the life of me figure it out. The answer? Ellen Raskin illustrated the original cover for Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time then later would go on to win a Newbery for The Westing Game. Raskin originally intended to be a freelance commercial artist anyway, and she did about a thousand book jackets in her day. Not too surprising that L’Engle’s would have crossed her plate. Of course, according to Anita Silvey, "she had always hoped to win a Caldecott Medal for illustration." Instead she got a Newbery.
The plot description from the book reads, "Sixteen people were invited to the reading of the very strange will of the very rich Samuel W. Westing. They could become millionaires, depending on how they played the game. The not-quite-perfect heirs were paired, and each pair was given $10,000 and a set of clues (no two sets of clues were alike). All they had to do was find the answer, but the answer to what? The Westing game was tricky and dangerous, but the heirs played on, through blizzards and burlaries and bombs bursting in the air. And one of them won!" Oddly cheery recap, that.
American Writers for Children Since 1960: Fiction says that the book came about in this way: "It was begun in 1976, the Bicentennial year, which prompted the use of the words of ‘America the Beautiful’ as clues. The death of Howard Hughes was much in the news at the time, which inspired the strange will and multiple heirs. She [Raskin] intended the book to have a historical background and set it on the shores of Lake Michigan, where she grew up. Wisconsin had a history of labor disputes (perhaps she remembered the career of her Grandfather Raskin, a member of the Industrial Workers of the World who was murdered at age thirty-four), so she chose to write about a slain industrialist. Raskin said, though, that as she wrote, ‘My tribute to American labor history ended up a comedy in praise of capitalism.’ It was a true Bicentennial book." Also, the working title was Eight Imperfect Pairs of Heirs. Proof positive that working titles sometimes bite.
If she was any character in the book, it’s easy to guess which one. "Raskin was certainly Turtle Wexler, and The Westing Game as a tribute to capitalism is not surprising because she was a capitalist herself. She maintained a portfolio of stocks and played the market successfully. She was very proud that she was once asked to manage a mutual fund but felt it would take too much time." I bet. There is no other American children’s novel out there that has so effectively gotten kids interested in the stock market. Indeed, it’s probably their only encounter with it.
Sadly, The Westing Game would be the last children’s novel she’d Raskin would ever write. She died in 1984 at the age of 56. American Writers for Children Since 1960: Fiction put her life this way. "Her first book was her best picture book, and her last book was her most praised novel." I suspect that the "first book" they’re referring to is Nothing Ever Happens on My Block which is rather remarkable. I don’t know that everyone would agree with that assessment, though.
You can learn a lot about Ms. Raskin on the website dedicated to her at UW-Madison. I was particularly interested in the statement that said, "She once indicated that her attitude toward humor was influenced by the Preston Sturges film Sullivan’s Travels ." Good woman. Excellent taste.
In fact, I would encourage you gigantic authors out there to take a page out of Ellen Raskin’s book. Her Westing Game wins itself a Newbery so what does she do? Does she hide said manuscript in the back of her closet? Does she hand it over to scholars who will put it in a safe zone where it will never be touched by oxygen or light again? Not a jot. She is a Wisconsin woman through and through and so she offers her manuscripts to UW-Madison for the students to look at. Twice. They say no. Twice. She offers it a third time and this time they say yes, though they worry that they can’t take proper care of it. She doesn’t mind. She just wants the students to see what the writing process is really like. You can get the full story on the manuscript here at the CCBC site.
Honestly, that’s just for starters. The site is remarkable because of all the different parcels of information you’re allowed to plow through. Have you ever wanted to actually hear the voice of Ellen Raskin explaining about her drafts, final manuscript, working notes, and the book design? Go here and you can hear her voice, originally recorded in 1978. I think the working notes section is my own personal favorite. Particularly the scanned sections where she tries to find the perfect name for each character.
There are Westing Game rip-offs or odes (depending on how charitable you’re feeling) in abundance each and every year. From the 39 Clues to this year’s The Billionaire’s Curse by Richard Newsome there’s something about the mix of murder mystery and potential riches that entrances child readers and adults alike.
In terms of the Newbery itself, it won the Award proper in 1979 beating out only one Honor Book. That book was The Great Gilly Hopkins by Katherine Paterson (coming in at #55 on our poll).
Which brings us to today. Back in 2007, Publishers Weekly announced the following:
"Stephanie Owens Lurie and Mark McVeigh at Dutton have acquired five books by Newbery Award–winner and The Westing Game author Ellen Raskin in a major six-figure deal negotiated by Alex Glass and John Silbersack at Trident on behalf of the Raskin estate. The books include two new puzzle mystery novels: The Westing Quest, a sequel to The Westing Game, and A Murder for Macaroni and Cheese, a never-before-seen manuscript nearly completed at the author’s death in 1984. The deal also includes the reissue of three backlist novels, Figgs & Phantoms, The Mysterious Disappearance of Leon (I Mean Noel) and The Tattooed Potato."
Years go by and not a peep is made about these books again. Now word on the street has it that Dutton will be publishing these books in the fall of 2010. More information as I get it, folks.
- Head on over to Collecting Children’s Books and you can see additional information on the book and the original favors from the 1979 Newbery/Caldecott Award dinner.
- And insofar as I can tell, you are not a true Westing Game fan until you own this t-shirt:
Sadly, I don’t think she sells them anymore (but if you’re interested you might ask her).
Needless to say, that first Westing Game cover was one that Raskin illustrated herself. Since then, there have been a SLEW of others. The original is still my personal favorite, though.
Alas, it was turned into a movie. In 1997 Get a Clue, based on The Westing Game, came out. I won’t torture you with the trailer, but you can see it here if you’re curious. I don’t know how you could adapt the book and leave out Turtle’s braids, but apparently it’s possible. Somehow, that seems worse that leaving out Harriet’s glasses in the various Harriet the Spy adaptations.
More amusing is this time lapse video of a staged production of The Westing Game. I like the set and I like how they incorporate the background. Fun to flip through.
Filed under: Top 100 Children's Novels (2010)
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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