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  • tenleyschwartz

Dear Ellen

Wednesdays were my favorite weekday back then. Let's say I was twelve. It's hard to pinpoint years when you were homeschooled, learning unpunctuated by new classrooms and rotating teachers.

During the school year, Wednesday was church night. I looked forward to the snacks, the horsing around, the idle chatter of girls trying out new versions of themselves.

On summer Wednesdays, the library stayed open late.

It was one of those warm Wednesdays, slipping in on a rainy evening just before 8pm, that I found Ellen Raskin. I'd practically memorized the shelves of the children's section. Betsy-Tacy on the low shelf hugging the wall, My Side of the Mountain one shelf over. I'd double check R, seeing if more Nancy Rue books had appeared. (I'd interlibrary loaned so many from Ms. Rue that my librarians took the hint and ordered more).

I knew to avoid the standing shelf filled with cheap paperback series with titles like The Candy Apple Cuties and Mr. Denbahm Hates Denim. When I did dip into them, I'd breeze through the pat storylines in half an hour.

Even then, I was a fast reader. Even then, I was conscious about what my reading said about me.

But the blessing of reading is that you can pick up a book because you're 'supposed to' and still get swept up in its absorbing world. A good book doesn't let you stay smug and undetatched.

This rainy Wednesday, I wasn't looking for any of that--to prove myself, or to say something. I was after a story. I'm sure I'd seen the title and wondered before. I don't know what catapulted it from a strange volume to one that I might try and read this time, but I slid Ellen Raskin's The Tattooed Potato and Other Clues from its space on the high shelf and took it home.

It's a strange book. There are no children. It's structured as a series of mysteries that link together, but the really curious part is the characters' burdens. They are guilty, seeking, striving, hiding. With deft asides, Raskin sketches a portrait of conflicted people. It's funny in a witty, dry way. The subjects don't feel particularly suited for children--art history, blackmail, poetry, murder.

It is a singular book, and I returned to it many times after that Wednesday. It felt like it belonged to me. I still think about Piero Della Francesca angels and Christina Rosetti because of it.

Much later, reading Verlyn Klinkenborg on writing, I realized why I felt this way. Ellen Raskin trusts her reader.

The flimsy paperback series I skimmed through operated under the assumption that children needed a moral tale or a quick, glittery story about friendship.

Ellen gave me a professor who hates street signs and a student who's haunted and an artist with a trembling left hand. Characters wear disguises and I was trusted to follow along.

Even now, I read her and realize I can be stranger than I first assume.

My feeling of sole ownership may not have been too far off. Years later, my mom found the book relegated to the library sale cart due to low circulation numbers.

She bought it for me.

The 1975 edition lives on my living room bookshelf, with chocolate smudged margins and tattered library slipcover. It's the first edition, so early that it only mentions two previous chapter books. Her Newberry Award winning The Westing Game would come out three years later, in 1978.

I've learned, now, that Raskin was a writer and a graphic designer. She was picky about margin width and typeface. She illustrated her own book covers. She didn't read children's books. She was from Wisconsin. She died at 56 from a connective tissue disease.

I've read all four of her children's novels. I marvel at how profoundly weird she let them be, and I'm thankful that my young self took that book off the shelf one Wednesday.

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