When my middle school book group decided to read Ellen Raskin’s The Westing Game as our first selection, I was excited to go back to a book that I hadn’t read since I myself was in middle school (I astounded my students by telling them the book was almost as old as I was). The Westing Game was actually a book I started several times as a child. I knew exactly where it was in the UNH Library, which was my hometown library at the time, and every so often I would pick it up and try again.
As I re-read the book, I realized why I had so much trouble getting into the book as a child: there are just so many characters introduced in just a few pages. That’s writing 101, isn’t it? Don’t introduce too many characters at once, you’ll overwhelm your readers. Perhaps, though, that was Raskin’s intent. As a reader, you’re unsteady on your feet from the first page of this mystery where everyone is not who they appear to be.
In this children’s book, there is really only one child: Turtle. Another rule broken: you can’t fill a children’s book with adult characters. My sympathies were definitely different as an adult reader. Most of my middle school students related to Turtle, who I found a bit petulant. They thought Mr. Hoo was hilarious, while I found him bitter and cruel to his wife. On the flip side, I felt tremendous sympathy for Angela, who struggled to be a bright, independent woman in a world that valued her only for her prettiness, but my students — and I imagine my young self — found her a bit bland. The point is, that while these characters were much older than the intended audience, they were still engaging characters, and that’s what really matters.
When I asked my students why they thought this book has stood the test of time, they said it was because Raskin didn’t included too many time specific elements in it. While this is true on the surface, the book is concerned with diversity in a way that I think was very much of its time. Still, they were right that it had a timeless feel.
There’s often pushback against Newbery winners, and lately they’ve been much aligned as books no one wants to read (see, for example, Laura Miller’s piece on the National Book Awards in which she unfavorably compares the awards to the Newbery Medals saying both have “come to indicate a book that somebody else thinks you ought to read, whether you like it or not.”) The Westing Game, though, is a book that children want to read. Even though it’s difficult. Even though it’s not strictly about them. If critics are right about the Newbery Awards — and I’m not sure they are — in 1979, at least, they got it right with a book that, on first glance, seems to have gotten it wrong.