The Westing Game: Let the game begin!

Ellen Raskin. The Westing Game. United States: E.P. Dutton, 1978.
Ellen Raskin’s The Westing Game charms young readers through humor and quirky characters. Raskin’s clever use of word play and plot layers make this murder mystery more than just a fun read; The Westing Game won the 1979 Newberry Medal for excellence in children’s literature.

The Westing Game is about a multi-millionaire, Sam Westing, who set up an elaborate game to determine who will inherit his wealth. Through the book, the reader will meet Westing heirs and their families, all of whom mysteriously end up living in the same apartment building, Sunset Towers. Two months after moving in, Sam Westing is found dead, and his will dictates the rules of the game. The heirs are paired off and then pitted against one another in attempt to find Westing's killer and win the two hundred million dollar reward.

Though the subject of The Westing Game is the murder mystery, the book is ultimately about the characters. Raskin gives us 16 heirs who make up a rather unsympathetic bunch. The opening makes clear that the heirs include a "bookie, a burglar, a bomber, and a mistake." Each character borders cliche, with details like "Barney Northrup lying through his buckteeth","Turtle Wexler's kite tail of a braid flying behind her", or "rigid and righteously severe Crow" dominating our perception. Yet Raskin gives each of the heirs a human touch, making them more than just caricatures. Each character blossoms through the challenges of the story, growing in identity and emotional depth. The dynamic changes in each characters is one of the most endearing aspects of the book. Though the book defines the time period, the emphasis on these human stories gives The Westing Game a sense of timelessness.

Raskin’s straightforward tone is simple enough for young students to follow the plot, yet the story layers and cynical, biting word play continues to entertain adult readers. True, the ending may be a little transparent to adult readers. Also, the focus on resolving each character’s story 20 years in the future is possibly unnecessary closure for adult readers. However, the somewhat predictable nature supports young adults’ desire for closure and is a rewarding finish for all readers who have come to love Raskin’s characters. Raskin's writing is smart; it is never "dumbed down" to cater to children. She said she writes for the child in herself, but as Ann Durell argues in the foreword that Raskin actually writes to the adults in children. The Westing Game lends itself to the kind of demanding, intriguing and pleasure driven reading that makes life-long readers.

Recommendations for Teachers
The Westing Game has been taught in schools from grade levels 4 through 9. With so many characters from different backgrounds, there is a person for everyone to relate to. Teachers must be aware that there is a level of violence and danger in the story: the tale is centered around a "murder," Turtle finds Westing’s body, and the tenants of Sunset Tower are threatened by multiple bombings. However, these incidents are not graphic. Ultimately, the story promotes finding the good in others, overcoming greed and learning to show love in various ways.

Reluctant readers can be intrigued by the mystery in the novel as well as the steadily developing characters. Activities to engage readers in the story and it’s constantly changing characters could include creating a scene from the story using drawings or pictures from magazines to show what they feel characters look like. Class discussions can trace the story and the characters as well as their relations to one another. Short writing assignments can ask for students’ favorite characters at different points in the novel, and to explain why students like that particular character and how their view of them changes. Students can play along as the mystery develops, creating groups for each character pairing with respective clues and using foreshadowing to attempt to guess who the murderer is and who is innocent. Keeping a detective journal will help students keep track of who is who, and how they are all connected. Even playing mystery games such as Clue can help students draw conclusions while making reading fun. The book is chock full of double meanings, and provides several accessible examples of irony and symbolism. Critical thinking questions about the significance of Sam Westing’s patriotism, Turtle’s braid, chess, the bombings, Sydelle’s notebook, or the “mistake” character make students think below the surface of the novel. From interactive projects to literary devices, this book is a fun, easy, and engaging read that provides many opportunities to use games, art projects, and critical thinking skills to enter the story world.

One of the most endearing aspects of this book is its ability to engage readers at different levels and for various purposes. The book could be taught in a variety of situations ranging from a 6th grade class analyzing the elements of mystery, 9th graders analyzing the word play and cynical tone, to a senior introduction to logic course or a writing class analyzing how Raskin altered successive drafts to create the mystery. Whether taught alongside a children's book or a classic mystery like Sherlock Holmes, it has the ability to provide a scaffold across many reading levels.

About Ellen Raskin

"I try to say one thing with my work: A book is a wonderful place to be. A book is a package, a gift package, a surprise package -- and within the wrappings is a whole new world and beyond." -- Ellen Raskin

Ellen Raskin frankly described herself as a "bookmaker". She was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin in 1928 and died in Greenwich Village, New York in 1984.

Beyond a "bookmaker", Ellen Raskin was a prolific graphic artist, a clothing designer, and a self-poclaimed compulsive perfectionist. She began her work printing other's art in New York City after obtaining a degree in fine art from the University of Wisconsin -- Madison. Raskin spent only a couple years building a portfolio before becoming a free-lance illustrator and designer. In the fifteen years prior to creating her first independent work, a picture book titled Nothing Ever Happens on My Block , she illustrated and designed jackets for hundreds of books -- one of which was the original cover for Madeleine L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time . Most of her body of work as an illustrator and a writer is focused for children and young adults. She loved kids.

Her writing was first lauded when Figgs & Phantoms was named a Newbery Honor Book. Shortly after that, in 1979, The Westing Game won a Newbery Medal for distinguished writing.

Though she has stated she had a very rigid and organized upbringing, her art, specifically her writing, is far from drab, mechanical or stoic. The humor infused in her work continues to touch the funny bones' of children and adults alike and because of her stricter, more rote school experience, her books are always marked by incredibly well thought out word play and deeply layered plots. Part of her draw is that she dared to write, especially with The Westing Game, complex story lines, but with characters so funny, so crazy that kids still love twisting through the worlds she has created, no matter how intellectually difficult the work may prove to be. In her love for children and her insatiable desire to better herself, she stands a cut above, a true embodiment of the word artist.

Ellen Raskin was survived by her husband, Dennis Flanagan, and her daughter Susan and her son-in-law. Her own works and the works of over 1000 authors and artists that were touched with her artwork live on as a testament of her talent and impact. She was, indeed, a most beloved bookmaker.

Multimedia (Video or Audio)
The Westing Game was turned into a 1997 made for TV movie called Get a Clue,
Here is a funny video of The Westing Game Ch. 16 with LEGOs

Additional Resources:
About Ellen Raskin

Classroom Activities
Extensions of Themes from The Westing Game
  • Stock Market Education An interactive site introducing students to the fundamentals of the stock market.
  • Bird Guide A website Chris Theodorakis would most likely visit. Introduces the art of studying and watching birds.
  • Mystery Writing Workshop "What does it take to create a truly spooky story?"
  • Nova Fireworks All about the creation and implementation of fireworks.

--Dan Slane, Mike Coon, Katelyn Wood, Brett Blohm and Sara Kiel (see also Adam Rapp's Punkzilla and Ann Marie Fleming's The Magical Life of Long Tack Sam)