January 28, 2023

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Ellen Wittlinger, author of Hard-Hitting Queer YA, has died

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On the same day that news broke of the loss of YA author Marcus Sedgwick, the YA community lost another legend in the field. Ellen Wittlinger, who wrote seminal, hard-hitting, realistic YA with queer characters at a time when such stories were exceedingly rare, died on November 17, 2022.

Wittlinger’s career began as a playwright in the 1970s and 80s after earning her MFA from the University of Iowa Writers Workshop. Although she continued to write plays and was active in the world of playwriting, she found a true home in YA with her writing skills and writing voice.

Hard Love, published in 1999 and her third novel, was a finalist for YALSA’s first-ever Printz Award. It was also a Lambda Literary Award winner and received star ratings and critical acclaim from several major outlets. The story follows a boy and girl who bond through zines and navigate their friendship through parental divorce, sexuality and what it means to find yourself.

“Perhaps the most important thing about winning the Printz Honor Award was that I felt legitimate in my own eyes. Even though it was my third YA novel, winning a grand prize gave me a sense of acceptance in the field that I didn’t have before. I suddenly felt confident that I could say, “Yes, that’s what I do — I write novels for teenagers,” Wittlinger said in a 2005 interview with Cynthia Leitich Smith.

Wittlinger’s books focused on adolescent characters navigating emotionally complex situations, and she was not afraid to portray the dark side of adolescent experience. Their stories featured class-conscious characters as well as social realities. Wittlinger published in the early 2000s, at a time when queer YA—especially openly queer YA—were rare.

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I know it’s hard to understand for people who popped up in the golden era of YA in the mid 80’s, but there just weren’t that many YA books in the 90’s after a lot in the 80’s. Wittlinger was one of those people who broke through in that era and inspired many of the writers you love today.

— Sara Zarr (@sarazarrbooks) November 18, 2022

Whitlinger is perhaps best known for her book Parrotfish, one of the first books in YA with a transgender protagonist. Published in 2007, the book follows Grady as he comes out as transgender and begins to transform despite strong opposition from his loved ones. The book was nominated for the Lambda Literary Award. Parrotfish was a rare story that empowered trans teens at a time when such stories were unpublished, and ten years after publication, Whitlinger and her editor updated the book to use more accurate language around the trans experience. Despite being a product of the 2007 publication, many cite it as the first time they were reflected in books written for them.

Tributes to the author came via social media when he broke the news.

Ellen Wittlinger was one of the earliest YA authors to write about queer characters. I’m sorry to hear that she died. She was really influential.

— Malinda Lo (@malindalo) November 18, 2022

Just learned @EllenWitlinger died. She was so kind and generous. What a bad week for writers and those who love them.

— April Henry (@aprilhenrybooks) November 18, 2022

At 13, I locked myself in my room and read HARD LOVE in a feverish outburst, moved by these characters who felt like me in a strange way I couldn’t name. When I came out at 21, it all made sense. Thank you Ellen Wittlinger for showing me before I knew her. ❤️

— Ashley (@ishmish17) November 19, 2022

Other books by Wittlinger include What’s In a Name, Zig Zag, Someone Else’s Shoes, Love & Lies: Marisol’s Story, Local Girl Swept Away and more.