Top 100 Children's Novels #9: The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin
#9 The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin (1978)
It seems smarter and funnier, and altogether more perfect every time I reread it. – Jenne Abramowitz
Simply stated the best book ever. It stands the test of time, and I give it to kids every year. Turtle, while incredibly unlikeable, is loveable just the same, and the quirky characters have just the right amount of strange. Raskin also managed to do the “what-happened-in-the-future” part of it right (unlike some awful epilogues of late). I do wish that David Lynch would make this into a movie. – Stacy Dillon
Oh, Ellen, why did you die so young? – Susan Van Metre
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 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. My husband’s blog Cockeyed Caravan is actually based on a Sullivan’s Travels quote.
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.
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.
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. Finally the three backlist titles are reissued in 2011. More time passes. The Westing Quest, I am sorry to report, seems to have sunk beneath the waves yet again. But on a happier note, it looks like Dutton will be publishing a Kindle edition of A Murder for Macaroni and Cheese on August 15, 2013. More information as I get it, guys.
- 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.
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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