Tuesday, December 21, 2010

In Praise of Ellen Levine

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.)


Deborah Heiligman said...

Me again. Ellen is very happy to hear from people directly at ellenlev@verizon.net . And she says she set up the web site right before she got sick and hasn't gone back to update it so it's not current. And she hasn't checked it. So please email her directly.

Susan Kuklin said...

Thanks, Deb, for writing this post about Ellen Levine, an important member of our writing community. Ellen does indeed inspire in many ways, both professionally and personally. May I share a personal one:

Years ago, while chatting with Ellen at a PEN meeting about what nots and so-and-sos, she stopped the conversation to ask if something was wrong. “My cat is very sick and she’s such a perfect, wonderful cat.” I was a mess but thought I had hidden it from of authors, most of whom I did not know.
Ellen hugged me tightly and said, “Your cat has been good to you for many years. Now it’s your turn to do what’s right for her.” This simple, direct statement somehow got me through this difficult period. And she followed up, too, with daily phone calls and encouragement. Words! Isn’t that what it’s all about? And a hug?

Ellen is a fighter. She will get better. She IS getting better. Meanwhile, let’s send some words and hugs.

Susan Kuklin said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Gretchen Woelfle said...

After giving a reading from my book Jeannette Rankin: Political Pioneer at Vermont College, Ellen (who was on the faculty then) came up and told me that she had marched in the Rankin Peace Parade that I had described! She has been part of the history that she has written about.
Since then we have met occasionally when I pass through New York - last time was in April when she encouraged and advised me about a book of mine that hasn't yet found a home.
I carefully studied Henry's Freedom Box while writing a picture book biography and I expect that hers helped me sell mine. Ellen, I look forward to seeing you on my next trip to NY!

Michelle Edwards said...

A beautiful and touching blog post. I know Ellen only through her books and the column she used to write for Audrey Baird's Onec Upon a Time. Both have made me feel as if I have met her.Plaese relay my best wishes to her.

C. Cackley said...

Darkness over Denmark is one of my all time favorite non-fiction books and I often recommend it to students looking for interesting books to read about World War II.