Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Under the Radar: Ellen Emerson White

I've posted before about my love for Ellen Emerson White's writing. So, when Colleen at Chasing Ray came up with the idea for Recommendations From Under The Radar, the first and only author I considered was EEW. EEW began publishing in the mid 1980s, and most of her YA work is (sadly) out of print, and, accordingly, is overlooked. Over the past decade, most of what she has published has been picture books and children's books; but, she returns to books for older readers with a new book coming out in October. So I thought, what better time to explain why I love EEW's books? And, over the next week, I'll be reviewing several of her books, including some of the YA titles I mention below.

EEW's first book, Friends for Life*, was published in 1983. I was 17; and found out about her book from an essay she wrote that appeared in Seventeen. EEW wrote about writing, and why she wrote, and about being published while in college. I was impressed enough by the essay that I tore the article out of the magazine and kept it for years. (I went looking for it in connection with this post, but couldn't find it; even Ebsco doesn't go back to the early 1980s, so I cannot get a copy that way.)

I also paid a visit to the local bookstore. This was the early 1980s. Most teen sections were slim pickings; back then, there was a certain "I hope nobody notices me looking here at books that are much too young for me"ness about teen sections. Especially when one was 17 (or was it before my birthday? Was I still 16?)

So I bought the paperback of Friends for Life. And fell hard for Ellen Emerson White.

Why? The dialogue and the humor. Her characters think and talk like I do; sometimes, they think and talk the way I wish I did. I'm not always that quick or that funny.

Her characters are sometimes sarcastic; they are also honest and vulnerable. Over and over, I believe her characters to be real; fully formed; I would recognize them on the street. They are flawed, they are funny, they are a mix of good and bad. They are complex.

Of course, dialogue and characters alone aren't enough to make a book, and a writer, great.

EEW has great plots, all starting with a wonderful "what if ... " premise.

What if.... your best friend was murdered? But no one believed it?

What if.... your mother ran for President? And won?

What if.... your boyfriend killed someone?

What if... you were a nurse in Vietnam, and when you returned home no-one understood what you had gone thru?

EEW takes these situations, adds action, and believable characters doing believable things.

Dialogue. Real to life characters. Humor. Interesting plots.

EEW is up there with Meg Cabot and Sarah Dessen.

Why, you may be asking yourself, have I not heard of her before?

Let's go back to when she was first published: the early 1980s. The YA/teen book world was not what it is now; both in terms of respect for the authors and the book, and in advertising and marketing. As I recall, most of EEW's early books came out in paperback first, which means that they get pretty beat up which means they are weeded which means it can be hard to find them in the library. And, as I mentioned above, back in the early 1980s teen sections were practically non-existent and were viewed as strictly an under 14 area. These were also the days before the Internet. Before big book tours for teen authors. In addition, EEW was, and is, a private person.

Another reason EEW is still under the radar is she has used different names for different books. Her fabulous Echo Company books,** about a teenager drafted into the Army and sent to Vietnam in the late 1960s, were published under the name Zack Emerson. Her picture books are published under Nicholas Edwards.

Plus, EEW suffered from bad timing. Just as the YA/teen book world exploded, EEW's YA titles had gone out of print and she wasn't writing YA anymore. Instead, there were picture books (Santa Paws) and Dear America books (Voyage on the Great Titanic: The Diary of Margaret Ann Brady; Kaiulani: The People’s Princess, Hawaii, 1889; The Journal of Patrick Seamus Flaherty: United States Marine Corps Khe Sanh, Vietnam, 1968;** and Where Have All the Flowers Gone?: The Diary of Molly Mackenzie Flaherty, 1968**).

Some of the books I'll be talking about over the next several days are out of print. It is worth it to track them down via Interlibrary Loan or used book stores. Plus, since here latest book, Long May She Reign, is due out in October and involves characters from other series, I am hoping that if her new book does well, we will see these titles being reissued; I am hoping that we will see more EEW books. And I am hoping that finally Ellen Emerson White gets the same type of recognition as Meg Cabot and Sarah Dessen.

* Will be reviewed Thursday.

** Will be reviewed Friday.

Today's Under the Radar Books:

Big A, little a: Ingo by Helen Dunmore

Jen Robinson's Book Page: The Changeling and The Velvet Room both by Zilpha Keatley Snyder
Bildungsroman: Girl in the Box by Ouida Sebestyen

Finding Wonderland: A Door Near Here by Heather Quarles

Miss Erin: Girl With a Pen and Princess of Orange, both by Elisabeth Kyle

Fuse Number 8: The Winged Girl of Knossos by Erick Berry

Bookshelves of Doom: The Olivia Kidney series by Ellen Potter

Chicken Spaghetti:The Natural History of Uncas Metcalfe by Betsey Osborne

Writing and Ruminating: Jazz ABC by Wynton Marsalis

The YA YA YAs: Massive by Julia Bell
Image supplied by Little Willow.


Anonymous said...

Great tribute! I second your love for Ellen Emerson White, particularly Life Without Friends and Friends for Life. My permanent collection doesn't have much YA from when I was in middle and high school (got it all from the library), but it definitely has those two.

Unknown said...

i loved eew as a teen and totally agree that she's one of the best out there. FRIENDS FOR LIFE is one of my all time favorite books.

i think that the first three meg powers books are being rereleased and also updated (no Tab, the internet, etc.) i am so excited to be able to read them again!

and i'm looking forward to reading all your reviews this week!

Lindsey said...

Interesting post and very insightful about the ebbs and flows of the ya lit world

tanita✿davis said...

I read my first EEW in something like 1995, and it was a paperback from the tiny YA section in our library -- held together by clear tape. I was hooked, and dug out EVERYTHING of hers I could find; I bought the one about her Mom being president on the way to a trip, and just devoured it. I'm so glad you thought of highlighting her!!

I hope she sees your post and feels really encouraged: EEW, your reader are still here!

Definitely another generation should pick her up!

Jess said...

I put Long Live the Queen on hold a couple months ago (after your recommendation) and quite enjoyed it - but I must confess that I would never have given it a second glance if I saw it on the shelf, due to the HIDEOUS cover. It was a clearly well-used hardcover, but I'm guessing most of the use happened a while ago.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this spotlight! Being a teen in the 90s, I found EEW on my high school library shelf, and devoured the few books I could find (Friends for Life, Life without Friends, and the then-three president's daughter books). What a treat to see a new YA book from her after all this time. I too was hooked by the humor -- it was as on-the-spot smart as I wanted to be -- and the highly charged emotions. Truly an unsung author.

Erin said...

Great, great post, Liz.

Anonymous said...

Well, shoot, I tried to post--but I don't think it worked. I will try again.

Anyway, thank you for the kind remarks. If it's better for me not to participate, I definitely won't; or I can pop by now and again, if you think that would be good.

I actually consider myself an adult writer, from Life without Friends on--but, they haven't been marketed that way, for the most part. (Dear America and such were pay-the-rent books, so they don't really count)

Anyway, thanks for the nice remarks!

Ellen (Emerson White)

Anonymous said...

I read that same essay in Seventeen back in the 80s and actually kept it for years and years. (I'll have to check - I might still have it.) The part I still remember is where she mentions running out of an emergency room to see if anyone would chase her, so she would know how to write it in her book.

It's one of the first things I read about a real author - someone I could identify with and I've never forgotten it.

So happy you are writing about EEW this week.

And do please participate Ellen - we'd all love to hear from you!


Liz B said...

Ellen, thanks so much for stopping by & commenting! Please participate.

And yes, I'll be clear (clearer than I was here) that the titles I'll be talking about include both YA & adult, not just YA. (I fixed the one sentence in here that was a bit vague about that.) It's funny; in the past year there has been much made of the recent "crossover" titles that straddle YA & adult such as Nick & Norah by Levithan/Cohn, and The Book Thief by Zusak -- and you were doing that (books that appeal to both older teens & adult and could be marketed to both) over 10 years ago. Just another example of your being a trailblazer.

Colleen, yes that is the essay! And I'm pretty sure it also included a bit about Meg.

Everyone, thanks for stopping by & I hope that you like the reviews coming up.

Anonymous said...

You sold me with "Her characters think and talk like I do; sometimes, they think and talk the way I wish I did. I'm not always that quick or that funny." Thanks!