Ellen Raskin

Notable Wisconsin Author

Ellen Raskin
Ellen Raskin

by Ginny Moore Kruse

“I try to say one thing with my work: A book is a wonderful place to be. A book is a package, a gift package, a surprise package — and within the wrappings is a whole new world and beyond.”

Illustrator, writer, and designer Ellen Raskin said this about her work at a symposium, “The Creative Spirit and Children’s Literature,” held July 11-15, 1977, at the University of California-Berkeley’s School of Library and Information Studies. Her symposium paper, published in Wilson Library Bulletin, October, 1978, reveals, in part, Raskin’s perception of the role her Wisconsin background played in her development as a “bookmaker,” the word she chooses as most descriptive of her work

Ellen Raskin was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, on March 13, 1928. As a child during the Depression years, she “…had straight dark hair, tap-danced with two left feet, . . . had a singing range of three wrong notes, spilled ink on [her] best dress, lost [her] piano to a finance company…” and always had her nose in a book, according to her own account of autobiographical elements in her books, published in The Horn Book, December, 1978.

“As far back as I can remember, I invented characters. My sister and I would spend weeks at a time acting out the lives of at least ten characters each . . . I was also surrounded by real people, lots of them . . . at least fifty close relatives showed up at the annual family picnic held up or down the Lake Michigan shore.”

Ellen Raskin describes herself as a “self-critical, running-scared, compulsive perfectionist” since the age of ten. At the Berkeley symposium she spoke of her schooling as “rigid,” consisting of learning entirely by rote. “Being a good memorizer, I did well,” Raskin said. She did a lot of coloring, copying and drawing but cannot remember ever drawing from her imagination as a child. This came later.

Raskin entered the University of Wisconsin-Madison at age 17 with the intention of majoring in journalism. During the following summer she visited the Chicago Art Institute and saw the first major exhibition of nonobjective art: “I was astounded by what I saw. I was awed.” She changed her major to fine art and received a disciplined education in the fundamentals of anatomy, perspective, light and shade, color, and techniques of painting and sculpture. Ellen Raskin then married, had a daughter, Susan, moved to New York City, was divorced, and took a job in a commercial art studio where she learned to prepare other people’s artwork for the printer.

During this time, she learned to do paste-ups and color separations at work, while on her own, she experimented with typography using a bench printing press and ten fonts of type she had purchased. She developed a sample book containing ephemera she designed and printed using woodcuts and, after two years, she began a free-lance career as a commercial artist.

Style and technique were important to her as a free-lance illustrator/designer but even more significant was to find the idea, the one graphic symbol which would best convey the message. Here she began to develop the powers of her imagination. Raskin illustrated for The Saturday Evening Post, pharmaceutical house journals, and book publishers. During these years she made illustrations of all kinds, including the design and illustration of more than 1000 book jackets (including the original jacket for the 1963 Newbery winner, A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle) and more than a dozen children’s books written by others.

According to Dennis Flanagan, editor of Scientific American whom Raskin married in 1960, she was recognized for that work by fifteen major art awards and exhibitions. Perhaps the most widely distributed and reprinted work during that time was the New Directions edition of A Child’s Christmas in Wales by Dylan Thomas, originally published in 1959 and which remained in print for over 25 years.

After fifteen years of illustrating the ideas of others, Ellen Raskin had an idea for her a picture book of her own, Nothing Ever Happens on My Block, published by Atheneum in 1966 with Jean Karl as editor. Gradually Raskin found that she could turn down commercial assignments and concentrate all her time on her own children’s books, each one an exercise in problem-solving for her and, often, for the reader as well. Almost all of them, picture books and novels alike, develop some aspect of the theme that things are not what they first appear to be. Raskin’s delight in wordplay is evident throughout her books.

Although she considered herself an artist first and foremost, she was awarded for her writing: Figgs & Phantoms (Dutton, 1974) was named a Newbery Honor Book and The Westing Game won the 1979 Newbery Medal for distinguished writing. Both books were edited by Ann Durell at E.P. Dutton, as were all of Raskin’s novels. In all of her work, Raskin made a singular contribution as a humorist. Her highly original, zany — but always ordered — humor marked much of her writing, illustration and book design. She once indicated that her attitude toward humor was influenced by the Preston Sturges film Sullivan’s Travels.

When she was asked to name those people and experiences that most affected her work, she listed “Blake, Conrad, Hawthorne, James, Nabokov, Piero della Francesca, Calude Lorrain, Gaugin, Matisse, Fantasia, Oriental art, baseball, hockey, zoos, medicine, and Spain,” in a Top of the News interview published in June, 1972. Her spouse Dennis Flanagan reported on Raskin’s success as a “finance capitalist” in his biographical essay published in The Horn Book in August, 1979, to accompany her Newbery Award acceptance speech. Until her death in 1984, Raskin lived with her husband, daughter and son-in-law in a two-family house in Greenwich Village; this house provided the setting for The Tatooed Potato, and Other Clues (Dutton, 1975). It was there that Raskin maintained her studio, her personal collection of first editions, and her stock portfolio, as well as her home.

Regardless of the forces and people that shaped Ellen Raskin’s work, one can say unequivocally that her creative process was always guided by her respect for children and her appreciation of fine bookmaking. The books she wrote, designed, and illustrated have continued to take young readers to a whole new world… and beyond.

Ginny Moore Kruse served as Director of the CCBC from 1996 to 2002.

©1981, 2000 Ginny Moore Kruse