The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin

  • Title: The Westing Game
  • Author: Ellen Raskin
  • Publisher: E. P. Dutton
  • Year Published: 1978
  • ISBN: 014240120X
  • List Price: $16.99
  • Page Count: 192
  • Age Range: 10-14
  • Genre: mystery
  • Award(s): Newbery Award Winner

Author information: Ellen Raskin (1928 – 1984) wrote and illustrated many children’s books, including another Newbery honor title, Figgs and Phantoms. Because of the age of this novel and the fact that she died thirty years ago, there is a dearth of information about Ellen Raskin available online. Cooperative Children’s Book Center has a biography of the author, using many quotes from Raskin herself, which talks about her upbringing and how she created characters from an early age.

Reviews: Kirkus called The Westing Game “confoundingly clever, and very funny”. It applauds Raskin’s colorful characters and many plot twists, and the review contains many plot spoilers. This novel was voted #9 on School Library Journal’s list of Top 100 Children’s Books, due to the fact that its writing is smart and its characters are crazy without losing their charm or believability.

Readers annotation: Sixteen people have been named in millionaire Sam Westing’s will, but only the ones who discover who murdered him will get his money.

Summary: The Sunset Towers apartments are full of an eclectic set of people who seem to have very little in common, until they are all named in the will of the mysterious millionaire Sam Westing. The will pairs all sixteen heirs into teams of two and states that whichever pair of heirs solves his puzzle and discovers his killer will inherit his fortune. Thus begins a frantic search full of secrets, deceptions, bombings, and self-discoveries. As the teams search for the answer, they discover that nothing is what it seems, and all of their relationships to Mr. Westing and the Westing estate are called into question. Turtle, a resourceful, shin-kicking child, finds the answer to Mr. Westing’s puzzle and becomes his protege and heir, but even though the other heirs lose and never find out that Turtle uncovered the real mystery, all of their lives are enriched by playing the Westing Game.

Evaluation: Both plot and characters in this novel are exceptional, and they blend together to make an entertaining read that will make readers want to dive headfirst into the mystery genre. Each character perfectly flawed, with his or her own set of fears, insecurities, hopes, and uncomfortable relationships, but each of them has a unique voice, so the reader is always aware of who the narration is following at any given time. The diversity of the cast is also commendable–while Mrs. Hoo can be somewhat of a caricature at times, the other characters are diverse, from J.J. Ford, who is an African American female judge, to Mr. Hoo, who is an inventor and reluctant Chinese restaurateur to the Theodorakis family, who are of Greek decent but have varied interests and hobbies that extend far beyond their ethnicity. These characters even acknowledge the racism of each other on numerous occasions, such as when Judge Ford thinks Mr. Westing is taunting her with racist clues, or when Mr. Hoo comments on Grace Wexler’s derogatory comments and assumptions about him based on his race. Few books that I’ve read for this class (and otherwise) do such a good job of including race in a conscious, thoughtful way without making it a major plot point of the novel. Additionally, Raskin’s pacing and plot were engaging and gave the reader enough hints to make guesses about what would happen next without letting the story line become too predictable, and the cliffhangers at the end of each chapter made it difficult to put the book down. All of the characterization, plot, and humor in the novel underlie serious themes–such as family, self-identity, the importance of money, and good vs. evil–that the reader will be grappling with even after she finishes reading.

Rating and appeal factors:

  • Quality: 5/5  Although there are sixteen prominent characters, Raskin juggles them with minimal confusion and the reader gets a very clear sense of who each character is. The pacing of the novel keeps the reader engaged, and the reveals at the end are superb and satistfying.
  • Popularity5/5  It’s hard to imagine a child who would not be captivated by Mr. Westing and his unusual game, or who wouldn’t love trying to solve the puzzles in the novel before Raskin reveals the answers. Because of the variety of characters, there is somebody for every type of reader to root for, and even readers who are not normally drawn to mysteries will be eager to know what happens next.
  • Appeal factors: mystery, murder, strong cast of characters, plot twists.

Read-alikes: 

  1. The Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Stewart would be a good suggestion for readers who enjoyed unraveling the riddles in The Westing Game. The cast of characters in this novel is reminiscent of the quirky and eclectic group in Raskin’s story, and more than money is at stake–the fate of the world rests in the hands of the young protagonists.
  2. For readers who enjoyed Mr. Westing’s decision to incorporate a variety of people into a life-sized game, Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library by Chris Grabenstein is a perfect fit. Mr. Lemoncello is the world’s most famous gamemaker, and when he designs a library and invites twelve children to an overnight at the library, they find themselves locked inside until they solve his mystery.

Book talk ideas: The characters in this book are a strength, so start with short biographies, perhaps even on some kind of handout mocked up like trading cards, explaining who everybody is. Then tell them about Mr. Westing’s game and offer–that they have to work in teams and that the team who discovers his murderer will win his inheritance. If this were a chosen book for a weekly read-aloud, kids could even vote for who they think the murderer is or who they want to win the money, and track their progress as the story continues.

Discussion questions/ideas:

  1. Who was your favorite character? Why? Who was your least favorite? Why?
  2. What is the significance of the way the characters identify themselves when signing documents for the game (example: Angela first gives her occupation as “none” and then as “person”; Theo changing from “brother” to “writer”)?
  3. What did Turtle’s braid mean to her? What is the significance of her losing her braid toward the end of the novel?
  4. How did you feel about the end of the novel? Were you satisfied with how everyone’s life turned out?

Reason for reading: I’ve read a lot of Newbery winners and honor books as a child–I was the kid who would get the bookmarks from the library that listed all of the winners and methodically cross them off as I read them–so I was shocked to see The Westing Game on so many lists as one of the greatest Newbery winners of all time when I had never heard of it. When it kept popping up on must-read lists, I knew I needed to get this title under my belt. I checked it out of the library knowing nothing about it other than that people adored this book and that it was some type of murder mystery, so I had very little idea what I was getting myself into.

Additional relevant information: Roberto de Leon, an elementary school teacher, posted an article on the Nerdy Book Club blog about The Westing Game. He talks about how the compelling characters and plot can attract reluctant readers, and gives an example of a student he recommended the book to who had never read for pleasure before who loved it and wanted to read more books because of it. Commenters on the article cite this book as being a great selection for a read aloud and being a great illustration of character development for this age group to study. Here is another thought-provoking take on this book from the writers at The Book Smugglers. They examine what they love and don’t love about the novel, and talk about some of the themes of the novel and how they resonate with today’s readers.

About these ads

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s