Book designs by Ellen Raskin
July 18, 2013 8:19 PM   Subscribe

Ellen Raskin (1928-1984) is best known as a writer, author of The Mysterious Disappearance of Leon (I mean Noel) and the Newbery Award-winning The Westing Game. But she always considered herself an artist first. Raskin designed over 1,000 book covers, including the iconic original cover of A Wrinkle In Time, the edition of Dubliners you probably read in college, and the New Directions edition of a Child's Christmas in Wales (Raskin did the woodcuts on the inside, too; further appreciation here.) More Raskin covers are collected in this flickr set from Bennington College. posted by escabeche (29 comments total) 44 users marked this as a favorite
God I love The Westing Game. One of my favorite parenting moments was handing that book to my 11 year old, and having her love it just as much as I did. She spent the next week keeping her very long hair in a braid, constantly daring me to pull it so she could take a swipe at my shins!
posted by Frayed Knot at 8:27 PM on July 18, 2013 [9 favorites]

Oh, and thanks for the post, escabeche! Looking forward to diving into these links.
posted by Frayed Knot at 8:28 PM on July 18, 2013

I am so thrilled you made this post. I have had "Ellen Raskin post" on my to-FPP list a long time as I just felt so certain other MeFites must have loved her books just as much as I. I didn't even know there was a 2002 post already. Her design was amazing, her stories more so. The Westing Game was elegant and amazing. I was fascinated, compelled and a little spooked by Figgs & Phantoms, a story I don't completely think I get, to this day. I only wish she had written more of those delicious books, unlike anything else ever for the middle-school audience.
posted by Miko at 8:30 PM on July 18, 2013 [4 favorites]

By the way, this didn't really fit in the post itself, but I do have to trumpet that Raskin was an alumna of my workplace, the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
posted by escabeche at 8:32 PM on July 18, 2013

The Westing Game is still one of my favorite books. May have to buy it on the Kindle soon.
posted by deezil at 8:41 PM on July 18, 2013

LOVED these books as a child. I'm going to retread them.

Also I just realized that it is because of her books that I began to love typography & the ampersand in particular. Probably why I went into publishing!
posted by theredpen at 8:42 PM on July 18, 2013 [1 favorite]

Thanks for the post escabeche. I've seen some of the illustration work but didn't know (of) Raskin.
posted by peacay at 9:03 PM on July 18, 2013

I have had "Ellen Raskin post" on my to-FPP list a long time...

Me too! Thanks for stepping up, escabeche - and in grand fashion.

I agree that The Westing Game is in every sense a beautifully designed book. That dollar bill typography! That spring-driven plot! - coiled, I can only marvel how, into fewer than 200 pages.

But what I most admire is Raskin's boundless love for the characters. In her affection for their foibles, her concern for their happiness, her compassion for their suffering, she reminds me of Dickens in his optimistic youth. Samuel Westing, that omniscient protean trickster with everyone's best interests at heart, is perhaps her avatar in the plot. (Or else he's the anagogic rebuke to Berthe Crow's doomy religion, the god who, despite all, loves us and wants us to be happy.)

I also have to put in a good a word for The Tattooed Potato and Other Clues, which draws pretty directly from Raskin's experience in the New York art market. It's got Christina Rossetti* references and that astounding thing in 1970s YA literature, a complex gay character.

*I've noticed that J.K. Rowling's new mystery shares with The Tattooed Potato 's penchants for Rossetti references and pseudonyms, as well as the basic setup of a practical young woman taking a position as an assistant without anticipating that her boss will be an eccentric detective of enigmatic background. Rowling has excellent taste.
posted by Iridic at 9:29 PM on July 18, 2013 [6 favorites]

Thank you so much for posting this. Every time I'm reminded of Ellen Raskin, I'm suffused with happiness. When I was about ten, I wrote her a painstakingly crafted letter, praising her work and asking advice on how to be become a better writer. When she replied, in her own handwriting, in magic marker, around the edges of a flyer, as if she couldn't wait a moment to find a piece of stationery before sharing her thoughts, I knew that nothing in adulthood could be any better than that moment.

I try to reread The Mysterious Disappearance of Leon (I Mean Noel), including her incredible word-pictures, every year. The Tattooed Potato was the only one I'd never read, and I just got it as a gift. escabeche, you've totally made my week!
posted by The Wrong Kind of Cheese at 11:17 PM on July 18, 2013 [5 favorites]

Oh gosh I am so excited to dig into these links. Thank you!
posted by samthemander at 12:01 AM on July 19, 2013

Thanks so much for this post! Ellen Raskin was one of my favourite writers when I was a kid. I still think about the covers and illustrations from The Westing Game and The Mysterious Disappearance of Leon (I Mean Noel), even though I haven't read them in years. I had absolutely no idea she had designed so many book covers! Oddly, I recognize many of them from my parents' book collection and from the editions in my childhood public library.

This seems like a good place to share these two blog posts I found by a blogger who visited the Milwaukee public library and photographed Ellen Raskin's signed and illustrated dedication pages in her books.
We braved the rain and 34 degree temperature to walk around downtown Milwaukee. Our destination point was the Milwaukee Public Library, which we had visited briefly once before. There wasn't any particular reason to go there -- I just like libraries, and have found that visiting the main library while on vacation often results in interesting finds, like J.R.R. Tolkien's Father Christmas book in Iowa City.

The Milwaukee library held an even greater treat for an Ellen Raskin-lover like me. I knew, of course, that Raskin was born and raised in Milwaukee, but I didn't know the children's room has a whole wall of books by Milwaukee authors, including Raskin. And not only that, but most of her books are signed, with an author's illustration on the title page.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 1:59 AM on July 19, 2013 [1 favorite]

Westing Game is amazing. Leon/Noel is also very good. The Potato book...I have to say, I think it was a mess. Definitely well-written and many good scenes, but overall just confused.
posted by DU at 2:16 AM on July 19, 2013

I had no idea about her design work, thank you for this post! There is an apartment building in Leominster, Massachusetts called "Sunset Towers." It was always a little bit spooky to ride past it when I was a kid.
posted by usonian at 4:49 AM on July 19, 2013

I first found "Nothing Ever Happens On My Block" in that place where so many children's books are discovered, the dentist office. It held my attention longer than Highlights. And when we found a copy at a yard sale, I got to bring home my own copy. I'd love going through the book, just following one of the characters in the background. Then starting again, following a different one. I remember actually making a list once of when each character first appeared. It's such a great book for detail-oriented kids.
posted by Hubajube at 4:58 AM on July 19, 2013 [1 favorite]

I love The Westing Game, I just reread it for the first time in decades. I had no idea she'd done the cover for Wrinkle in Time. I still have my copy of that book with that cover, which I bought shiny and new back in the 60's, from one of those Scholastic book order forms.

Derail: those book order forms were one of the highlights of my childhood. I would spend hours going over them, carefully making lists of the books I wanted, checking them off on the form, revising and erasing until sometimes I had to guiltily ask the teacher for another copy. And although money was tight in our house growing up, my parents never once asked me to get fewer books. It was like Christmas, but I got to pick my own presents. I was thrilled to discover they were still using them in the 80's, when my daughter started bringing them home from school.
Do they still exist?
posted by MexicanYenta at 7:18 AM on July 19, 2013 [3 favorites]

Wow, flagged as fantastic. I loved The Westing Game as a kid, too, but I'd never seen that cover design (or known anything about her design work) since this was the version I had. Less '70s, more '80s.

What's really remarkable about it is that it's the first book I remember reading with really diverse characters, and the were all interesting and it felt natural to have them all there. Just so well written.
posted by psoas at 7:28 AM on July 19, 2013

A post about Ellen Raskin is (apparently) what tips me from lurker to member.

Ellen Raskin's space on the library shelf was one of my regular stops (along with Robert Newton Peck, Roald Dahl, John Bellairs, John D. Fitzgerald, and others I'm forgetting).

I had read "The Westing Game" in fourth grade already when our teacher started reading it to us a chapter a day in class. For several days thereafter, I was the wise elder in my class with special "Westing Game" knowledge. I doled out bits of information as people asked, careful even then to avoid spoilers.

Okay so I was probably kind of a smug jerk about having read the book already. But I do think it earned me the privilege of making a replacement cover for our school's well-worn copy.

In addition to the mystery/puzzle-solving, the book has a strong theme of not taking people at face value, and letting them define themselves on their own terms. I can't wait till my kids are old enough for the book.

"Leon" is also great, and I'm paging through my copy now realizing that the interstitial illustrations are hers as well. Fantastic.
posted by Vendar at 7:36 AM on July 19, 2013 [5 favorites]

I have a copy of that edition of A Child's Christmas in Wales, and love the cover. I'll bet it's still in print. I wasn't acquainted with Ellen Raskin, so thank you for this post.
posted by theora55 at 7:36 AM on July 19, 2013

This is completely incidental to the topic, but since the post righteously includes her design work, I was reminded of this thread where I mentioned her design style. I'm not a designer and can't help but wonder how she's regarded - it seems to me as though her style was so influential.
posted by Miko at 7:54 AM on July 19, 2013

Welcome, Vendar! I am sitting here half wondering if we went to elementary school together, because there's a lot of overlap between my childhood list of favorite authors and yours, and I was also introduced to The Westing Game by my fourth grade teacher.
posted by usonian at 8:00 AM on July 19, 2013 [1 favorite]

I adore The Westing Game, but I didn't know of Ellen Raskin's design work. Looking at that flickr set of her book covers, I'm just itching to pick them up and look inside them. What great work--strong lines and fascinating details hinting at mysteries. Much like her writing!
posted by mixedmetaphors at 8:09 AM on July 19, 2013

The Westing Game was great, certainly, but the Raskin book that I felt a deep connection with was the peculiar earlier Figgs and Phantoms, which has a teenage protagonist with a weird but loving family and is full of clues to the book's surface mystery in typographical jokes and printed signs and Raskin's illustrations. I'm not sure whether she thought her YA audience would already have a familiarity with Joseph Conrad and the complete works of Gilbert and Sullivan or whether the book was meant to introduce them, but I love its internally-consistent off-kilter world.
posted by nonane at 8:41 AM on July 19, 2013 [3 favorites]

A couple days ago I came across the Bennington College flickr set of Raskin's bookcovers, and I've left the tab open for visual inspiration, but like a chump I assumed those were the extent of it. Hundreds! Hundreds! What a versatile lady.
posted by redsparkler at 8:51 AM on July 19, 2013

I remember that "A Wrinkle in Time" cover, and I don’t remember the story. That cover grabbed my attention as a kid and said "this is seriously weird and adult".
posted by bongo_x at 9:04 AM on July 19, 2013

Lifelong Raskin devotee, and my personal favorite is The Tattooed Potato. Particularly this bit about the meaning, or meaninglessness, of names.
posted by Lieber Frau at 11:27 AM on July 19, 2013

I really like that kind of cover design, with strong lines and collage or woodcut-like figures, but it definitely fits in the context of its period. Recall Saul Bass's movie poster designs, for example.
posted by Nomyte at 11:37 AM on July 19, 2013

Looking at her illustration work, I immediately realized that she must have done a book I remember from my elementary school's library: Who, Said Sue, Said Whoo?
- I was right! I never really cared for that very 1970's palette, but I was always intrigued by the style, which was pretty "out there" compared to most of the books I had at home.

I am totally out of touch with kids' books nowadays; the only ones that come across my radar tend to be lavishly, traditionally illustrated ones. Does the same variety I remember from the 70's still exist? I mean, you had Ralph Steadman illustrating Roald Dahl's stuff, and I still find Eric von Schmidt's illustrations for The Ghost on Saturday Night unnerving.
posted by usonian at 5:42 AM on July 20, 2013

Anyone remember Spectacles? Great art in that...
posted by jenfullmoon at 11:41 PM on July 20, 2013

Also, her writing was quite tricksy and devious. She was one of the greats, and she was doing it for kids, with matching art, no less.

I wanted to play Turtle. And loved how it ended. The others were quite awesome and weird and clever too.
posted by jenfullmoon at 11:47 PM on July 20, 2013

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