Poet and author Ellen Wittlinger, whose YA novels have been praised for their depiction of memorable and realistic protagonists navigating the experiences of first love and other provocative issues of adolescence, died November 17 of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease. She was 74.
Wittlinger was born October 21, 1948 in the small town of Belleville, Ill., where her parents, Karl and Doris Wittlinger, managed a grocery and later owned and operated their own store. As an only child, Wittlinger often felt like an oddball, she wrote in her autobiographical essay for Something About the Author, a feeling that would often color the creation of her fictional characters years later.
Though much of her early childhood was spent under the watchful eyes of her grandparents and other relatives, Wittlinger recalled having lots of alone time during which reading became a source of companionship, comfort, and adventure. She treasured trips to the public library with family and took refuge in that space when she was old enough to visit on her own.
By junior high, Wittlinger was earning her own spending money by helping out in her parents’ store and was hanging out with friends who shared her passion for reading about and drawing horses and ponies. Her dreams of becoming a painter blossomed in high school as did her love of writing poetry.
Wittlinger earned a scholarship to Millikin University in Decatur, Ill., and in 1970 received a B.A. with a double major in art and sociology. Upon graduating, she moved west to Ashland, Ore., the hometown that a college friend had raved about. Wittlinger found an ideal lifestyle there while writing poetry and doing some advertising work for the local newspaper to support herself. But just a year later she uprooted herself when she was accepted to the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop—a graduate school highly recommended by teacher Kelly Yenser and his wife Pamela, whom Wittlinger had befriended at Millikin. During the two-year Iowa program, Wittlinger met fellow writer David Pritchard, who became her husband in 1978.
In fall 1973, with her M.F.A. under her belt, Wittlinger moved to Cambridge, Mass., and not long after that received two fellowships from the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Mass., where she said, “I grew more comfortable with my writing self and came to respect myself as a writer.” Her first book, a poetry collection for adults called Breakers (Sheep Meadow Press), was published in 1979, shortly before the birth of her daughter, Kate. Wittlinger and Pritchard also welcomed a son, Morgan, a few years later.
In those early years of motherhood, Wittlinger continued writing poetry and also embraced playwriting. When her son started school, she landed a part-time position as a children’s librarian at the Swampscott Public Library. She took seriously her role as a recommender of books to children and set out to prepare herself by reading as many middle grade and YA novels—a quickly burgeoning category—as possible. That practice not only strengthened her librarianship skills, but it also awakened her interest in writing her own YA fiction. Wittlinger’s first YA novel, Lombardo’s Law (Houghton), about a shy 15-year-old girl who develops romantic feelings for her best friend, a 13-year-old middle schooler named Mike, was published in 1993 to a warm critical reception. Following that success, she began writing full-time. Among her other works, Wittlinger’s title Hard Love (Simon & Schuster, 1999), following 16-year-old John, who falls hard for his friend Marisol, who is a lesbian, was named a Printz Honor Book.
Though many of her novels feature the experiences of first love, Wittlinger chafed at having her work categorized as “romance.” “I prefer to think of my books as coming-of-age stories,” she wrote in SATA, “books that remember what it feels like to be 13 or 15 or 17 and to feel for the first time the tumult of adult emotions.”
In all, Wittlinger produced more than 16 novels for teens. She additionally taught writing at Emerson College in Boston as well as courses in writing for children and young adults for the Simmons College M.F.A. program.
Justin Chanda, senior v-p and publisher of Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, offered this tribute: "To say that Ellen Wittlinger was a trailblazer is beyond an understatement. For decades she wrote engaging, searing books that never shied away from showing all facets of love, identity, and sense of self. She was an absolute pioneer of LGTBQ+ literature, a fierce advocate for all voices, and a genuinely warm and wonderful human being. She will be missed terribly, but her books will live on as will her legacy."