Biography of Ellen Raskin

"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."

Ellen Raskin was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin in 1926 and grew up during the Great Depression. Raskin entered the University of Wisconsin-Madison at the age of 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 non-objective art. 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. Raskin married Dennis Flanagan in 1960, had a daughter, Susan, and moved to New York City. She later 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 freelance career as a commercial artist. Raskin illustrated for The Saturday Evening Post, pharmaceutical house journals, and book publishers. During these years, she made illustrations of all kinds, including 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 other children's books.

After fifteen years of illustrating the ideas of others, Ellen Raskin had an idea for 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 the 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 Tattooed Potato, and Other Clues (Dutton, 1975). It was there that Raskin maintained her studio, her personal collection of first editions, and her stock portfolio.

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.

Study Guides on Works by Ellen Raskin

Originally, Ellen Raskin, the author of The Westing Game, entered college at the University of Wisconsin-Madison with the intention of majoring in journalism; however, after visiting the Chicago Art Institute and viewing an exhibition of...