By: Rebecca Slocum
Today is Ellen Wittlinger’s 71st birthday. She is the author of 15 young adult novels, including Printz Honor winner, Hard Love and Lambda Award winner, Parrotfish.
Ellen didn’t always want to be an author. She loved and explored many other subjects in school, but she always returned to her two passions, art and English. She attended Millikin University in Illinois, where she majored in art, but she never quit writing. And slowly, she found herself falling for writing, just as she had for creating art. After college, she found herself attending graduate school at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop at the University of Iowa, where she slowly found her confidence in her career as a writer.
After graduate school and two writing fellowships, Ellen moved to the mainland in Massachusetts and got a job as a children’s librarian. It was during that time that she fell in love with the inspiring stories she found in the young adult novels around her. Her first novel, Lombardo’s Law, was published in 1993, and, 15 novels later, she hasn’t looked back since.
Ellen is not afraid to tackle all of the difficult issues that teenagers have faced in the last 20 years. Her 2005 novel, Sandpiper, tells the story of Sandy, a teenage girl with a reputation for using and discarding boys. Then, she meets The Walker, a quiet boy who often roams the streets of their small town, and they form a tentative friendship, attempting to help each other through their respective tragic and lonely pasts. Sandpiper explores the idea of teenage relationships and the often-harmful casual approach teens take to oral sex (“it’s not really sex”).
In 2007, Lysa, a 15 year old girl in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, checked out Sandpiper to use in a book report. She then refused to return the book to the library shelves because of the graphic nature and content of the book. The student’s grandmother stated, “This book is sick. I’m 50 years old and I’ve raised 11 sets of kids and been through many a library, and I’ve never seen a book like this in a school library before.” The student claimed that her school was sending mixed messages by teaching abstinence only, but allowing books that “teach how to do those things” on the library shelf. After a more formal challenge process, the Tuscaloosa County School Board allowed the book to stay on the shelves, though the school board President expressed interest in a more stringent review process for books that contain “vulgar, offensive, and inappropriate language or subject matter” in order to prevent the school from purchasing those books.
Ellen Wittlinger was interviewed regarding the challenge, saying that it surprised her at how upset she was the hear that someone had called her book sick and offensive; she also expressed her shock that the young girl herself was claiming the book was sexually explicit and a “how to” for oral sex. As with many censorship situations, it would seem Lysa did not read past the so-called graphic passage, only 6 lines, in which the protagonist describes her thoughts on oral sex. Spoiler: they’re not positive. Wittlinger also stated that, despite claims to the contrary, this challenge did not boost the sales of Sandpiper. In fact, the book is no longer in print and, with the negative publicity, librarians and teachers are somewhat hesitant to put it on their shelves.
Despite the frustrations from that book challenge, Wittlinger hasn’t shied away from writing about these tough, but important, topics that relate to teenagers. Her novels written since Sandpiper was challenged tackle everything from LGBTQIA issues, suicide, religion and spirituality, and the universal search for love and belonging. In her reflection about Sandpiper’s challenge, she stated, “I see my job as opening the minds of young readers to ideas they may not have come across before.”
I’m thankful for authors like Wittlinger. Authors who are determined that all young readers see themselves represented on the page, that all young readers should feel that moment of “yes, that’s me, I experienced that too”; that all young readers might feel a little less alone in the world because of their books. And I’m thankful for teachers and librarians who hold the line, who defend our teens’ right to read those determined and thoughtful words.
Happy Birthday, Ellen Wittlinger!
Rebecca Slocum has worked in education as a teacher and library consultant for the last 5 years and is a recent MLIS graduate student from the University of North Texas. She is interested in issues involving intellectual freedom, censorship, and collection development in school libraries. In her spare time, Rebecca enjoys reading, writing, running, and roaming the world. Currently, she stays at home caring for her son and writes at her blog, The Dewey Decimator. Find her on Twitter @bcslocum.