by Ellen Raskin
Everyone liked The Westing Game (1978), and back when I was 11 or so, I read Ellen Raskin’s other three puzzle-mystery-ish books, The Mysterious Disappearance of Leon (I Mean Noel) (1971), Figgs and Phantoms (1974), and this one, The Tattooed Potato and Other Clues (1975). In the years since, whenever I’ve looked these books up, this one has been by far the hardest to find and the least often recommended (I think it was reprinted fewer times) and so I’ve come to think of it as more interesting. I have a geekish tendency to assign things a secret value based on how forgotten or well-hidden they are. This sometimes gets weirdly doubled up in my own head and I end up assigning vague prominence to the things that I never think about. After listening to a CD many times and always skipping some track that doesn’t appeal to me, suddenly one day there’ll be turnaround in my brain and that track will take on a certain mystique for being the underdog “lost” track. I think this is related to some kind of defensive mechanism – my subconscious does passes over itself checking for potential weaknesses, and maybe skipped tracks feel, in their way, like blind spots that might potentially be exploited against me. Well, ha ha, I’m too smart for that sort of thing! I don’t know, maybe not, just a little psychological theory I came up with on the spot.
Point is, after re-reading The Westing Game several times over my increasingly adult life, including, most recently, aloud to Beth last year, I thought maybe it would be fun to go back and find the unsung other books and read those. Somewhere along the way I had tricked myself into thinking that as a kid I had actually liked The Tattooed Potato better than The Westing Game and The Mysterious Disappearance of Leon. And you know, I very well might have, out of pure underdog-logic.
But it’s not as good, not at all, and I felt a little ashamed of myself, having to face down that truth. It has things going for it, conceptual things and atmospheric things. But the details are fussy and frequently inelegant, and the semi-grotesque silliness of the character names, the plotting, the flattish whimsy – it just doesn’t flow into a satisfying whole. In The Westing Game she manages a much larger group of characters and concepts, going for the same kind of silly/serious gray farce, and attains a marvelous balance. I really think Wes Anderson should make a movie of it. In The Tattooed Potato, her essentially improvisatory style is more apparent and comes up with less satisfying goods. A lot of the comedy, and this is a major issue, just isn’t funny. But probably the biggest problem was that the two main characters were sketched ineffectively and their faces remained more or less blank for me to the end. That’s a serious flaw when the promising premise of the book is that it will investigate the way that art can reveal the underlying truth of a person. The thought in the book is about depth, and yet the world in which it takes place persisted in seeming superficial.
It was all, I think, purely a question of craft. I liked what the book was trying to do, and I liked it when on occasion it got there. But when the charm of any given event faded, there wasn’t a sturdy enough ground to fall back on. It felt too loose and the author didn’t seem invested enough in her characters, only in her concepts. The concepts, as I said, are good, and I’m glad I was exposed to them in 5th grade, or whenever. The book asks the question “what is art for and what are artists trying to do?” and answers it through parodic Encyclopedia Brown-isms. That’s an inspired idea for children’s literature. The idea at the heart of the book, that an artist is like a detective of essences, made an impression on me and stayed with me. Even if I’ve moved past it since then.
It’s just a real shame that it’s not a better book, that’s all.
Also, Ellen Raskin was an illustrator and book designer, her stories all incorporate art and/or design-like thought, and in their original editions (as I read them back in elementary school), they left particular impressions through their integrated, carefully worked-out design. This wonderful site, including all sorts of manuscripts and sketches for The Westing Game plus a long and interesting audio recording of Raskin talking about her working methods, makes clear how the fidgety fun of solving design problems is an integral part of her work. But the edition we read recently had some stupid new 90s paperback cover illustration, and though the interior seemed to have been offset from the original edition, the overall feeling was that we were reading just another junky kids’ book. These things make a real difference, especially in the world of children’s literature, where fragile aesthetic effect is frequently the raison d’être. Sorry, I don’t want to be the kind of person who says raison d’être, but there I go anyway.
The Tattooed Potato and Other Clues is such an unsung “lost” book that I can’t even find a proper scan of its original Ellen Raskin cover online. All I can find is this “Amazon reader-submitted photo” of what looks to be a library copy, of the sort where the center of the jacket cover is snipped out with scissors and glued down to a binding made of some indestructible brightly-colored material.
Despite the quality of the image and the library-binding isse, just looking at it, I can see how much better I would have liked the book this time around if it had had this cover on it. I really don’t understand why books – especially children’s books – get refitted with new covers when they get reprinted. Are kids really that sensitive to the “dating” of earlier styles of illustration? And if they are, aren’t they also sensitive to the “dating” of the associated book itself? I find it much easier to get into the proper mindset to appreciate a book if the entire package is sending me the same signals, historical or otherwise, and I think this applies to kids too. A book severed from its own design, certainly whenever the author participated in it (or in this case, created it herself), is a book severed from a part of itself. Right? At least in the 20th century.