I spoke last week at the Metro NYC Chapter of the SCBWI. When Seta Toroyan wrote me and asked me if I could speak, last minute, I told her I didn’t think I could—I was swamped with work and… and then she told me it was because Ellen Levine, who was scheduled to speak, was very ill and—I said yes in a heartbeat. In a heartbeat.
Ellen Levine is one of the great non-fiction children's book writers of our time. I have long admired her, and in 2002 was lucky enough to attend a workshop, run by Carolyn Yoder at the Highlights Foundation, at which Ellen spoke. In a cozy living room, Ellen told us how she researched and wrote Freedom’s Children and Darkness over Denmark. I talked to my friend Kay Winters yesterday – and we remembered how we both sat there in despair and awe. Despair that we would ever do the great work that Ellen does. Awe at how ambitious and life-changing her work was. But when she was done, what we were both left with was determination and inspiration. We both—all of us in that room, I’m sure—felt charged up to go out and do the best work we could, work that would make a difference. I know that Ellen has inspired many authors in this same way. And even more readers.
The night I spoke at SCBWI it was freezing cold outside, but inside the room glowed with the energy and excitement of bringing real stories alive for children. We talked about primary sources and dialogue and scenes and tough interviews. We talked about Ellen’s work and how much we all admired it.
At one point someone asked, “Do you ever think of doing historical fiction instead? What makes you write nonfiction about a subject instead of historical fiction?” Terrific question. Ellen herself has written historical fiction as well as nonfiction. I hope to someday, too. But given the choice, at this moment, I would write nonfiction over historical fiction because I want kids and their grown-ups to know this stuff really happened. Ellen and others have showed me over the years how powerful this can be.
I hope those of you who know Ellen, and know her work, feel free to comment here about how she has inspired you; and how she has influenced your work. She would also love emails and healing thoughts from our community. You can get in touch with her through her website.
A friend of our family died recently. Someone posted an article about him—he donated children’s books about law to the Yale Law Library. Guess whose book was one of his favorites? Check out paragraph 5. Sending love, admiration, and healing thoughts your way, Ellen. And holler if you want soup.
(I am editing this one last time at 3:00 am because I was lucky enough to wake up an hour ago and see the solstice lunar eclipse right outside my window. What a blessing. Happy winter, everyone.)