SCBWI

Society of
Children's Book Writers
and Illustrators

Remembering Ellen Wittlinger

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

(photo by Sonya Sones)

 

The SCBWI is mourning the loss of beloved poet, playwright, and author, Ellen Wittlinger, who passed away November 17 following a battle with Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease. She was 74.

Ellen grew up an avid reader and devoted poet, filling her childhood notebooks with stories and poems. Not long after getting an MFA from the Iowa Writers Workshop, she published her first book, a poetry collection for adults called Breakers (Sheep Meadow Press). Her two years as a fellow at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown were especially important in her development as a writer, and she came to consider the Outer Cape as her spiritual home. She later moved to Boston and began writing plays, several of which were given readings in Boston and New York, but then took a turn toward writing for young adults after working as a children’s librarian at the public library near her home in Swampscott, Massachusetts. There, she immersed herself in YA literature so that she could better direct young students to books that best suited their interests. In 1993, inspired by what she had been reading, she penned her first YA novel, Lombardo’s Law (Houghton Mifflin) which told the story of a shy teenager encountering romance for the very first time. More than 15 novels followed, including Hard Love (Simon and Schuster) which received a Printz Honor. She did not consider herself a romance novelist, but a writer who set out to tell stories plumbing the range of ways in which young people first encounter the tumult of adult emotions. Out of that belief she was an early pioneer of LGBTQ+ themed books, and is widely celebrated for her influence in opening the field to others.

She was an active member of her local SCBWI chapter, and a key contributor to her writers groups whose members felt privileged to read her works-in-progress and greatly benefited from her astute comments on their own writing. Following her passing, remembrances by colleagues and friends have poured in. We can’t think of a better way to celebrate and honor her than by sharing some of those tributes with you here.

 

ELLEN’S AGENT

I met Ellen at an SCBWI workshop in Topsfield, MA in May 1995 and we started working together soon after that. HARD LOVE wasn’t Ellen’s first published book, but it was our first as a team, and I remember her long-time editor David Gale sent both of us flowers when HARD LOVE was named a Printz Honor in 2000, the first year the Printz was awarded. David’s card dubbed Ellen a first Printzess, if memory serves. My daughter read many of Ellen’s books, and was over the moon when at 13 years old, Ellen invited her and a friend to accompany me to Ellen’s book launch party—the amazing Parrotfish Prom at Smith College—and we got to spend the night in Ellen’s lovely home, along with Nancy Werlin. The Prom was a smashing success, as was Ellen’s pink wig, but my favorite part of the weekend took place the following morning in Ellen’s lush oasis of a garden with Ellen, David, Ellen’s daughter Kate and the rest of us, chatting and spending cozy time together in the warmth of the sun. Ellen was a bright light, full of laughter and warmth, and I will miss her forever.  

Ginger Knowlton

 

ELLEN’S EDITOR

Having long admired Ellen’s work from afar, I had the privilege of working with her on two middle-grade novels later in her career. We had a kick-off meeting at her home in Western Massachusetts. Not surprisingly, she was a gracious hostess with a fine wit and lovely laugh. She was a consummate professional when it came to the editorial process, not that she needed much in the way of editorial advice. Her dialogue sparkled; her playwright’s mind was always evident in the way her characters spoke and in her scene work. She was a prodigious talent, deserving many times more accolades than she received. And her talent was only exceeded by her kindness and compassion.

Yolanda Scott

 

CHILDREN BOOK AUTHORS

Ellen’s laugh carried our critique group through ups and downs, and taking part in the early readings of her plays in which we all took parts, was always a delight. She loved to host our group with a snack table overflowing. And her wit was both sharp and with good humor. She was a stanchion of the group, and we could always count on her. I will. miss her forever.

 Jane Yolen

 

Ellen was a mainstay of our Writing Group. She was a genius with dialogue, able to breathe life into her characters by distilling their conversation into a few choice lines. We delighted in the humor in in her recent plays as well as in her fiction. She was a gifted poet, and the poems she was reworking left us breathless. Her insights into our work and her gentle suggestions for revisions guided us, but it was her support and compassion that we will miss most. 

Corinne Demas

 

I have–which many of us have–is the utter delight and fun in taking parts to read the dialogue of Ellen’s plays. She had such a sure ear for dialogue that it always amazed us. Also her humor, which was robust. I always admired Ellen’s searching for her voice in different forms–plays, poems, novels, and more. I also remember her joining the Wild Mushrooms group to put on short plays. She had a kind of bone-deep courage which was wonderful. 

Ann Turner

 

I’ve been thinking about the bone-deep courage Ellen had that Annie mentioned.

I was impressed with her tenacity and work on the Wild Mushrooms and was glad to see the production at the Center of the Arts here in Northampton. She persevered with it, was committed to it, was a creative problem solver, and was able to work with all kinds of people. The afternoon show I went to was sold out! The production was wonderful and impressive. It amazes me how she could pull things together like putting on one of her plays. She was resourceful and organized, thorough in her approach. For some of her plays that I saw locally, she pulled together the actors, venue, rehearsals.

I remember one was at a place in Amherst, one at First Churches in Northampton, one at Gateway City Arts in Holyoke (I think others organized this production), one in her living room. A couple of her plays were performed on zoom during the pandemic, organized by other groups.  Ellen was solid, you could count on her, and she was able to work with others. She had a strong and quiet demeanor. A relished presence.

Politically, she cared a lot about what was going on and chose to promote an organization, Movement Voters, that helps grassroots organizations. She loved to throw parties at her house and entertain her family. Her parties were fun – come in costume on Halloween for example. And always good refreshments and a homey welcoming spirit. 

And she loved to travel, especially with her family. She loved planning the details of the trips and put together beautiful books of photos and text about each trip when she came back. She was able to go on one of these trips (to Portugal) with her family before she got sick in July. 

Barbara Diamond Golden

 

Ellen had a big smile, a big laugh, a big heart, big hands and feet that she often joked about, and of course, a big talent. Her death leaves a big hole in the world of children and YA literature, and a bigger hole in the hearts of those she loved and was loved by. Her absence is a big presence in my life. I will miss her in a big way for many years to come.

Lesléa Newman

 

Ellen was a driving hazard. For years (Twelve? Fourteen? Who knows? I never thought to keep track of the years because I didn’t realize they would come to an end) we were in a writing group together. Ellen and I lived in Western Massachusetts and the rest were in Boston, so we met in the middle—at a Panera in an almost comically generic strip mall. Every six weeks or so, Ellen and I would drive out to meet our friends, Pat Lowery Collins, Nancy Werlin, Toni Buzzeo, and Liza Ketchum to discuss someone’s draft. Ellen didn’t like to drive, so that was my job. But it was no easy feat to drive an hour in each direction with Ellen in the car because she would often share a hilarious story or observation that made me laugh, sometimes hard enough that tears would stream down my face, so hard I feared I would drive off the road. Every time we made the trip, she would point out a particular herd of cows on our return. “My favorite cows,” she would say, dreamily. “Belted Galloways.” They say that comedy (and all writing, really) hinges on detail. What kind of person has a favorite kind of cow? The kind Ellen was—keenly observant with a particular delight in the absurd. Someone whose eye went right to what was special about people, and places, and friendships, and moments, and car rides, and cows, and who relished them every time. 

Lisa Papademetrious

 

Ellen’s smile was as welcoming as the tables she set with
sunflower-bright crockery. When writers gathered, conversations
sometimes turned to slights such as insensitive reviews or rejections.
Ellen’s eyes widened. Sometimes a soft grumble caught in her throat.
Passing bread, cheese and tomatoes, Ellen taught us to nurture, then
turn back to our laptops, where she wrote with humor and grace of the
many ways people navigate betrayals and love.

Jeannine Atkins

 

Ellen and I and Suzanne Freeman began a writer’s group about thirty years ago. She first revealed her groundbreaking novels such as Hard Love, Razzle, and Parrotfish that included or featured queer and transgendered young people to our group of three. I remember being astonished by how well she knew the teenaged mind and feelings. When Suzanne moved to Virginia, we invited Nancy Werlin to join and then Anita Riggio. As the group expanded even further, we moved to venues in Worcester to accommodate those from North Hampton and Connecticut. What many may not know is that Ellen had studied art in college, and later became an accomplished photographer, capturing stunning scenes and perspectives from around the globe in travels with her husband, David. The vibrant photos from her recent family trip to Spain are still fresh in my mind. She was also a poet whose powerful poems about her children as babies, brimming with an all-consuming maternal love, blew me away. During the pandemic, however, she began to return more and more to playwriting. It was only months ago that I was able to see her moving one act play, Four Daughters, on Zoom, produced by a group called The Wild Mushrooms which is composed of older people still active in all aspects of the arts. She was a wonderfully kind and knowledgeable critic and possessed a jubilant energy that belied her long battle with Meniere’s disease. Many have mentioned her beautiful smile. Its brilliance expressed a warm and generous nature that I was fortunate enough to know and treasure. I will miss her mightily. 

Pat Lowery Collins

 

What to say about Ellen? I loved being in writers’ group with her, Pat Lowery Collins, and Nancy Werlin for several years—and through the publication of several of their notable books. These wonderful women helped to keep me going through my breast cancer diagnosis and treatment—I clearly remember buying knitted caps on a retreat with them in Amherst. It was a thrill to listen to Ellen read draft pages of her ground-breaking novel Parrotfish as it evolved, so year after year, I’m reminded of Ellen when I see a house decked out in over-the-top holiday decorations. Ellen’s careful critiques of my own work always spurred me back to my notebook. I specifically remember how her eyes shone when I looked up from reading a draft of my short-story “Bingo” for the collection Such a Pretty Face. After each monthly session, we four would go out for lunch where we’d share publishing news, personal, family news, and a bits of gossip–conversations that were always punctuated by Ellen’s infectious laughter. I’ll always cherish the memory of her laughter.

Anita Riggio

 

I met Ellen at a SCBWI Summer Conference. I can’t recall which of us went up to the other first, but I had read Parrotfish and was a huge fan. We kept in touch over the years, and when I moved from Los Angeles to Western MA, Ellen became not just a friend, but a neighbor. Here we are on Ellen’s birthday with authors Molly Burnham and Lisa Papademetriou. Why are we dressed like that? Because Ellen wasn’t one to have just a plan old celebration when it could be a costume party!

Lisa Yee