“I liked these books so much, I decided to try writing for young adults myself.”
Ellen Wittlinger was born in Belleville, Illinois, the only child of parents who owned a small neighborhood grocery store. They lived in a house that adjoined the store with only a screen door separating the dining room from the ice cream freezer and candy case. Sneaking Fudgcicles and Milky Ways was all too easy, and made Ellen a popular kid in grade school. If this sounds familiar, perhaps you’ve read her novel, This Means War! (Simon & Schuster) which is the closest to autobiographical Ellen has come. Like Juliet Klostermeyer in that book, Ellen’s parents’ grocery store defined her, and the neighborhood was her world.
In high school Ellen realized that she had certain academic strengths and weaknesses. Math was a weakness. German was a weakness. Science was enjoyed, but it didn’t always like her back. She loved art, but the finished products never matched the ideas in her head. Okay, she says, maybe there was only one strength: English class. Here she really excelled. Teachers told her she was a good writer, which excited Ellen.
So, it was off to college at Millikin University in Decatur, Illinois, to major in Art because 1) drawing pictures is fun! and 2) she was afraid to be an English major. She was afraid of all that reading and thinking—the Chaucer and the Milton and the Shakespeare. Who could understand it all? She was afraid she wasn’t up to the challenge. But Ellen continued to write, and pretty soon loved the writing as much as drawing pictures. A few years later Ellen attended graduate school at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop at the University of Iowa. It was terrifying! She thought everybody there was a good writer, but was she good enough? Her old insecurities came back, and she regretted that she hadn’t read all that great literature in college. But, she thought, you can’t go back, so you go forward. Iowa was often a trial by fire, but when she finished she knew that, yes, she was a real writer.
Two back-to-back fellowships at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Massachusetts, followed. This residential program on Cape Cod nurtures young artists and writers. There, Ellen wrote poetry and fiction and began to work on plays. If you’ve read Ellen’s books Hard Love, Razzle, Love & Lies, or Local Girl Swept Away (Simon & Schuster) you know that she likes to set her novels on the Lower Cape. She fell in love with the look and feel and smell of that sandy spit of land that sticks out fearlessly into the Atlantic Ocean. In 1979 she published a book of poetry, Breakers, written in Iowa and Provincetown.
Eventually Ellen moved back to mainland Massachusetts, got married, and had a couple of kids. She worked as a children’s librarian and began to read the books on the shelves that surrounded her. The young adult novels were inspiring! Brock Cole, Katherine Paterson, Ron Koertge, M.E. Kerr: wow. In 1993 Ellen’s first YA novel, Lombardo’s Law (Houghton Mifflin), was published. That little kid who stole Milky Ways from the candy case could never have imagined it.