Sunday, May 27, 2012

Remembering Ellen Levine

I’ve been thinking a lot about my dear friend Ellen Levine, who lost her battle with cancer yesterday. I started rereading her emails, pulling out bits and pieces of her words, trying to recreate the essence of her--like people who catch the scent of a loved one they’ve lost in an old coat and just want to hang onto it.

Right before going to bed last night I looked at the stack of books at my bedside. On the top of the pile was Art and Fear. I hadn’t gotten around to reading it. For some crazy reason, I said, “Okay, Ellen,” and picked it up. I tend to be fearful whereas Ellen was fearless. The first thing I read was this:
“Life is short, art long, opportunity fleeting, experience treacherous, judgement difficult.”
--Hippocrates (460-400 BC)
Life is short. Hippocrates only lived to be 40. Ellen was 70, which looks young to me these days. But art is long and yours, Ellen, will long outlive us. 

Opportunity is fleeting but you, Ellen, knew how to grab it by the horns and run with it. And you knew, too,  the treacherous nature of experience and were always ready and willing to pin it to the floor.

Oh my wise and scrappy Ellen!

When I questioned my judgement I always went to Ellen and she always made me see what I already knew but was reluctant to admit. When I asked her whether she thought I was foolish to speak out publicly about the sale of Marshal Cavendish to Amazon, for example, here is what she said:
"Those that disagree with the M/C sale can't hurt you any more than they already are by not carrying the book. You, George, Rachel, et al., may talk about stepping warily as you wade into political waters, but thank god you all never have.  You're fighters and say what you think.  Sure there are times when it's wise to be silent.  My 2 cents is this ain't one of them."
And another time, when I was worrying over reviews:
"...listen, there's nada we can do to combat stupidity except to keep writing and speaking truth as we know it."
And here, when I was plagued by the thought of those who might question the authenticity of my work and my right to write it:
"Seems to me we spend way too much time in life locking ourselves and others in boxes that we think are important definitionally.  But when I read My Name Is Not Easy, one thing so very moving to me was the way Luke talked and thought about his far north landscape.  It's not mine; I don't look out on vast unhemmed in openness, a true bowl of a sky, etc etc, but I related and was deeply moved.  It reminded me in a sense of my grandmother's kitchen, as it were -- i.e., that I have a landscape and it has meaning to me." 

And this, when I asked her to write a blurb for the book:
"Meanwhile, my fine writer friend, why in hell do you want a quote from this NY urban Jewish radical woman..."
Ah, my dear Ellen, that’s an easy one. As it turns out I happen to love NY urban Jewish radical women….or at least one of them.  

And her quote, part of which is on the cover of the book:

"In My Name Is Not Easy, Debby Dahl Edwardson has given us an
extraordinary tale of love, betrayal, and above all, survival, as a 
group of young Alaskan Natives are transplanted from their home
villages to a parochial boarding school in the Alaskan wilderness.
Through their stories, Edwardson reminds us that the landscape we see
is also the landscape of our soul, whether arctic tundra or urban canyons.
This is a novel that, like landscape, marks a reader's soul forever."
The line about love, betrayal, and above all, survival was used on the cover--but it's the last line that carries the essence of Ellen and the mark she's left.

PS--Her Books (some of them):

Darkness Over Denmark, the story of the Danish resistance that saved the Jews in Denmark during World War II

A Fence Away from Freedom, about internment of Japanese Americans in the 1940s

I Hate English, which has become a resource for ESL teachers.

Freedom's Children, the story of the young black civil rights activists of the 1960s, which the New York Times called, "nothing short of wonderful."

Henry's Freedom Box, the true story of a slave who mailed himself to freedom, a book which earned her a Caldecott Honor

Catch a Tiger by the Toe, of the MacCarthy era.

In Trouble, the story of two pregnant teenaged girls in the l950's, pre Roe vs Wade, written in a voice pitch perfect, which nails the era. I know; I was there. Much I had forgotten. Thanks to Ellen we will remember.

I am particularly fond of this line from Ellen’s introduction to Darkness over Denmark:

There were “good people” in countries throughout Europe who helped Jews during the Nazi period. But many more, when faced with the arrest and murder of their Jewish neighbors said, “What could we do?” For Danes, one additional word made all the difference: “What else could we do?”

The essence of Ellen Levine, her passion for social justice and her willingness to always act in its defense.

Go buy one of her books right now.


  1. Beautiful homage to your friend. I look forward to reading her work. While I don't have a book to try to do right by, her words about courage certainly apply to my life right now. Thanks for posting this.

  2. Thanks Jay, so good to hear from you. I hope the south is treating you well.

  3. Ellen Levine was an and will always be amazing author! Ellen was my first teacher at Vermont College. She was my workshop leader during my first residence. When I was preparing my lecture, I asked Ellen for an interview and her thoughts about multicultural literature.

    This was her respond, "I'm honored that you want to include I HATE ENGLISH! in your lecture, and I will share with you some thoughts about your questions."

    You can read the interview at

  4. Lovely, Debby. Great Ellen quotes, too.

    I love looking at that picture of her, and re-reading her words, and thinking of the exuberant energy with which she always greeted me (and my work, back when she was my advisor). I recall how she would raise up her arms; she always seemed to me much bigger than her physical body, and I imagine now she will grow even larger in my mind. I hope I can make her proud and "keep writing and speaking truth" in my own books, in my own way. As much as this is a loss for us personally, it is also for our whole children's lit community. She will be sorely missed.

    I also blogged about Ellen in my Memorial Day post today at CHICKS ROCK!:

    (And I cross-posted your blue poster with a link back here...hope that's okay.)

  5. Oh, Debby, thank you for this!

  6. Thanks for the beautiful essay, Debby.

    Not only did Ellen inspire us as a friend and mentor, she had an amazing impact on any audience. I first encountered Ellen when she spoke at a Vermont College day on nonfiction. My row of classmates sat mesmerized at this energetic, passionate fireball as she talked about the research process for her civil rights book. By the end of her speech, we were so taken that we all wanted to be her. And if there was a program available to move to NYC, become Jewish, wear dangling earrings, switch from our fiction to non-fiction, and lose a few inches --- we would have signed up instantly!

    I watched the same audience reaction at a panel discussion at the Boston Book Festival ten years later. Sitting near the back of the packed room, I watched people unfamiliar with Ellen lean forward, eyes glued on her, still as statues so they wouldn't miss a word. The clapping afterwards wasn't perfunctory; it was intense, just like Ellen.

    Ellen never 'preached to the choir.' She never simply confirmed or validated your beliefs. She inspired you to care even more---to dig deeper, feel more strongly, and act.

    RIP Ellen. You didn't just leave us with wonderful memories, you left us with the path forward--to dig deeper, feel more strongly, and act.

  7. I remember that speech on nonfiction too, Maura. I was there--my first experience with Ellen. I remember suddenly thinking of all the wonderful nonfiction stories I had to tell and all the bits of serendipity, as Ellen called them, that had been dropped into my lap which I hadn't, until that exact moment, even noticed. Suddenly, thanks to Ellen's exuberance, they were everywhere. In fact, as it turns out, almost at the exact time of her passing I was having a serendipitous moment with a nonfiction manuscript I worked on with Ellen. I jumped up all excited in one moment and learned of her passing in the next. This one will be dedicated to her.

  8. A beautiful tribute, Debby. Thank you.

  9. Both Kekla (link above) and Jackie Briggs Martin ( have posted lists of Ellen's books. I plan to post my own within the next day or two, but for those not as familiar with her work, check out these blogs. And Ellen's own. She still lives there: And I do hope everyone visit's Rene's blog (link above) and reads his interview with her: "we all reserve the right to critique a work based not on the skin color or ethnic origin of the author, but on the accuracy, power, and beauty of the story." That's our Ellen.

  10. These are lovely tributes, Debby, Maura, Kekla, and Rene to a person whose courage, tenacity, toughness and compassion humbled me. Ellen was one of my workshop leaders in my final workshop at VCFA. How lucky I was! Ellen knew the art of gentle nudging. You could walk into the workshop room feeling totally defeated and yet, somehow, she knew how to ask the right questions, offer the right comments and make you believe you really knew how to write the story after all. When you ran into her on campus that bright shining smile made you feel better instantly -- even after nine days of constant lectures, NECI food and no sleep! And yes, I remember her 2004 non-fiction lecture too. In fact, I have a tape of it and have just been listening to it again. There is such passion in her voice. It's hard to believe she's not here with us right now.

  11. Thank you so much, Debby! I love reading Ellen's responses. And it's so great to hear from others, especially VCFA friends. I did not have the privilege of working with Ellen as an advisor or in workshop. And yet....I've been thinking so much about her since I heard the news and remembering how absolutely present she could be--even with someone like me, a student in the crowd . . . although you know how those relationships can develop, too. I remember talking to her about my past as a journalist and my doubts and fears and dreams of writing fiction...and she was so THERE. As you say, Kekla, so much bigger than her physical body. Ellen's work will live on, as will her absolute passion and courage to stand up for what's right even when it's hard. Her wisdom will live on and her humor--that impish smile and laugh! And you know what else is cool? What she gave to each of us lives on, too.

    Kellye Carter Crocker

  12. It is so wonderful to read these thoughts on my dear friend. The last time I saw her, she was in the ER at Cornell Weil hospital. It was St. Patrick's Day, the place was full of hungover Irishmen, gurneys were lined up against the walll--a nightmare out of MASH. But Ellen--who hadn't been able to eat for days, had spent the night in the hall, and needed a real bed in a hospital room--kept her sense of humor; she'd made friends with most of the staff, and, even when lodging a complaint, managed to make the nurses feel that none of this mishigas was their fault. When John and I went back to see her the next day, she and Anne had worked their magic together, found her a room, and Ellen and Anne (true researchers) had figured out the best medical person to do the procedure that would make it possible for her to eat again. Her spirit and her determination were infectious.

    One thing we mustn't forget about Ellen: she really could boogie! I have been thinking about some of those VC parties in the basement, the CD blasting "Raining Men" and Ellen (who undoubtedly wore her red snow pants crossing the campus) would be dancing her heart out on the dance floor. I hope she's doing that where she's gone. She was the best.

  13. Oh Liza, those red snow pants! I am smiling ear to ear remembering those red snow pants on that little person who always was and always will be, as Kekla says, larger than life.

    1. Haha, YES--the red snow pants! I loved those, and her willingness to wear them so proudly.

  14. And one other thought: Ellen was a passionate, indeed, rabid, baseball fan. She and Maura and I often talked baseball online and in person. I now realize that Santana pitched a complete game for the Mets, a shutout, on the day Ellen died. Not a coincidence, in my opinion.

    1. Only for Ellen would this Red Sox fan put a Mets bandana on her dog and send her the picture!

      I also once sent her what she claimed was one of her best reviews--I told her how I had given my ten year old nephew her book Catch A Tiger, and how he sprawled on the couch after football practice still wearing his football pants, ice on his knee, and dove into it. An hour later he came up for air and announced 'This is really good' before getting back to it.

      I think of all the kids who have read and will read Ellen's amazing books, and how it will teach them and inspire them, and it makes me smile.

  15. Not a coincidence at all Liza. Nor can it possibly be coincidence that at the exact moment I had a breakthrough on a nonfiction piece I worked on with her---or had a bit of serendipity, as she would say.