RIP XIII #3: Ellen Raskin

The Tattooed Potato and Other Clues
The Mysterious Disappearance of Leon (I Mean Noel)
Figgs & Phantoms
The Westing Game, by Ellen Raskin

When I was a kid, I read all of these books, and luckily I bought copies sometime in the 90s.  Lots of people have read The Westing Game, which won the Newbery, but the other three are less well-known.  They're all still in print, though!  I find that a little surprising, really, because these are pretty oddball books, and I would bet they'd never get published today.  Happily for us, they were written and published in the 1970s.  Raskin loved weird comedy, typography, puzzles, and puns.

Ellen Raskin wrote and illustrated picture books too, and had a very distinctive style.  My favorite of the picture books is probably Nothing Ever Happens On My Block.

The Tattooed Potato and Other Clues: Dickory Dock, wannabe art student, gets a job helping Garson, a society portrait painter.  While Dickory despises Garson's slick, shallow paintings, he teaches her to observe carefully, and together they start solving crimes.  The greatest mystery of all is right in the building, with Garson and the downstairs neighbors.  Weird wordplay and tragi-comedy, set in a very 70s New York City.

 The Mysterious Disappearance of Leon (I Mean Noel): Two families develop a wonderful soup during the Depression.  To ensure their future, they marry 5-year-old Caroline to 7-year-old Leon, and then send Leon off to boarding school.  Mrs. Carillon is rich and lonely, and she counts on Leon (who has changed his name to Noel) to graduate and come home -- but when they finally meet, their boat tips over.  Leon (Noel)'s message to Mrs. Carillon is half-lost, and he disappears, and she spends years searching for him, trying to decipher the clues.  On the way, she adopts twins Tony and Tina, who just want to settle down...this one is my favorite.  I love the illustrations, which were hand-lettered.

Figgs & Phantoms is the strangest of the books, in which Raskin let her love of typography loose.  Mona Newton is perpetually miserable, belonging as she does to the weirdo Figg-Newton family.  The Figgs used to be circus performers, and the Newtons are pretty odd too, and Mona just can't take it; the only one she likes is her Uncle Florence, who used to dance in vaudeville and now deals in antique books with color plates.  He wants to teach her his love of books, but she's only interested in the business end.  Mona can't stand the idea of losing her uncle, but he keeps hinting that he's going to go to Capri -- the Figg family heaven in their own little religion.  Partly a story about coming to terms with death and finding happiness, partly really strange comedy, I think Figgs & Phantoms is a bit of an acquired taste.  It won a Newbery Honor, though.

The Westing Game is the one everybody knows.  An ill-assorted bunch of people are purposely lured into renting apartments in a new building, just down the hill from the old Westing mansion.  When Sam Westing, who has been missing for years, is found dead in the house, all of the building residents are named heirs and set to find the solution to the mystery -- the prize being the Westing fortune of 200 million dollars.  If you've never tried to solve the puzzle-mystery of Sam Westing's last game, you definitely should.

I can't quite remember now what conversation with my kid made me decide that I needed to read all four of these again, but I'm happy I had them around so that I could!


  1. I LOVED these (well, three of them) when I was a child -- I was never able to get a copy of Figgs & Phantoms in the days before ILL and internet searching. Leon was one of my favorites, and The Tattooed Potato -- I was never able to find copies, for years they were out of print and crazy expensive, except for The Westing Game. If a book wins the Newbery, it's pretty much guaranteed to stay in print because every library owns them all. I do have a first edition of The Westing Game, it's my childhood copy and it's still on my bookshelf.

    I actually just got Leon I Mean Noel from the library the other day, but I haven't reread it yet. It's a paperback copy and I don't know if it has all the illustrations which I'd completely forgotten about! It would not be the same without it. Now I need to see if I can track down hardcovers, it might be easier now that they're back in print. Thanks for this trip down memory lane!


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