Posted by: jeannineatkins | May 3, 2010

What I’m Reading: This Means War by Ellen Wittlinger

Despite the sunshine and lilacs, a nice crowd showed up to hear Ellen Wittlinger read her new novel for middle readers, This Means War, at the Broadside Bookshop in Northampton, Mass. Ellen is a great reader and brought to new life a book I’d already read and loved for its layers. We have the story of Juliet and Lowell whose friendship changes now that they’re in fifth grade – and he focuses on his go-kart and friendships with only guys. It’s the fall of 1962, and the growing tension between them, as well as a boy vs. girl contest re who can be bravest (or do the craziest things?), parallels the escalation of the Cold War.

Ellen’s more recent novels, such as Parrotfish and Love and Lies, were written for teens, and she mentioned that the voice for a younger audience felt harder to get into at first, though then felt –and sounds –comfortable. She told us she was glad to put in the older sister, Caroline, to provide a voice that’s less vulnerable and more prone to sarcasm. I loved how raw Juliet was, how sometimes deeply and with-good-cause afraid, but I always like the steadier-on-the-surface, prone to outrage voice of a teen, too. I do think that comes sort of naturally to Ellen. One of the things I love about Ellen is how clearly her jaw sometimes drops and eyebrows shoot up at witnessing the foibles of the world. But she has the good and loyal heart of a fifth grader, too, which she poured into Juliet.

Ellen told us that while some details of the book drew from her own memories, she also researched. She found a website with slang from the era, and while she didn’t use any words or phrases that were unfamiliar, those that sort of rang a bell brought back feelings she put into the book. The setting took me back, partly through references to seeing shows like Mr. Ed, the talking horse, or JFK on TV (black and white), but also to being around eleven years old, when some of my own classmates parroted parents with sturdy conviction, and seemed so sure of right and wrong and what lines should never be crossed. I remember smug kids with bomb shelters built into their basements. The sense of adults with their own problems being pretty oblivious to ours. And the ache of loneliness as both old friends and what you once knew for sure slipped away.

This Means War is full of fear and bravery, while looking at what those words can mean.

Writers will like to read about how Ellen came to write the book, looking back to her own experiences. For her essay at BookPage, click this link:!



  1. This Means War is in my newly brought home from the library book bag! I’m looking forward to it.

  2. Oh, Lorraine, I’d love to peek in your library book bag more often! I think you’ll enjoy this one.

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