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Ellen Wittlinger, award-winning young adult author who included LGBTQ protagonists, dies at 74

A onetime children's librarian in Swampscott, Ms. Wittlinger began publishing young adult novels nearly 30 years ago.Sonya Sones

Ellen Wittlinger’s pioneering 2007 young adult novel “Parrotfish” features Grady, a transgender protagonist who discards the birth name Angela on the day after Thanksgiving, eliciting mixed family reactions.

“Nice name,” Grady’s father says, but Grady’s sister Laura balks and asks, “Is that even a boy’s name?”

“It’s a name that could belong to either gender,” Grady replies. “Also, I like the gray part of it — you know, not black, not white. Somewhere in the middle.”

Ms. Wittlinger, an award-winning author of wide-ranging young adult fiction who also wrote plays and poetry, was 74 when she died Nov. 17 in her Haydenville home of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, a neurodegenerative disorder whose symptoms appeared less than two months earlier.

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Inspired in part by her former job as a children’s librarian in Swampscott, she began publishing young adult novels nearly 30 years ago.

“I think these books get caught in our psyches because emotions run so strong for teenagers — who are, after all, experiencing all the big ones, for the first time, in just a few short years (love around one corner, humiliation or fear around the next),” she wrote in a 1998 Globe essay. “And maybe they still resonate because they take us back to that time, which, no matter how loudly we proclaim the horrors of it, was the period in our lives in which we were most likely to be ruled by our passions.”

Along with figuring out who they are, the teenagers in her books are keenly aware of the world around them.

“Central to Wittlinger’s books were teen characters navigating emotionally-complex situations, and she did not shy away from depicting the dark parts of the adolescent experience,” Kelly Jensen wrote on the Book Riot website. “Her stories featured characters who were conscious of class, as well as social realities.”

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Ms. Wittlinger’s third novel, “Hard Love” (1999), which featured a teenage main character who had just come out as lesbian, was honored by Lambda Literary, an organization that champions LGBTQ books and writers.

“Parrotfish,” which also was nominated for a Lambda award, “was a rare story giving power to trans teens in a time when such stories were not being published,” Jensen wrote, adding that at the time, many readers considered it “the first time they saw themselves reflected in books written for them.”

Ms. Wittlinger, who married a man and had two children, wrote about characters from many backgrounds other than her own.

“I’ve written male characters, and I’m not male. I’ve written African-American characters and I’m not Black. I’ve written characters who speak to God, although I’m not at all religious,” she said in an interview quoted on the Lambda website.

“I don’t think writing outside of my sexual orientation is any more unusual than any of the other ways in which I stretch myself to understand the human psyche,” she said.

While writing “Parrotfish,” which was published in 2007, Ms. Wittlinger spoke extensively with a transgender friend of her daughter’s, and the friend vetted the book for language and accuracy.

Several years later, though, Ms. Wittlinger revised “Parrotfish” for a new published edition because “the language we use to talk about transgender people has undergone a shift,” she wrote in 2015 on The Horn Book children’s literature website.

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“I wonder how long any of these words will remain up-to-date before they’re replaced with others viewed as more acceptable by another generation whose thoughts about the transgender experience will have evolved from our 2015 ideas,” Ms. Wittlinger wrote.

“Getting the language right is especially important to the transgender community because, newly empowered, they want to lead the discourse themselves, as they should,” she added. “The rest of us will try as hard as we can to get it right.”

Born on Oct. 21, 1948, Ms. Wittlinger grew up in Belleville, Ill.

She was the only child of Doris Malzahn Wittlinger and Karl Wittlinger, who owned a small, neighborhood grocery store.

Aspiring to be a painter as a girl, she also wrote poems and kept diaries.

“She loved art,” said her daughter, Kate Pritchard of Nashville. “Art was her ticket out of her small town and her way of connecting with other people.”

Ms. Wittlinger graduated with a bachelor’s degree from Millikin University in Decatur, Ill., where a professor encouraged her writing and suggested she apply to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa.

She received a master of fine arts from the University of Iowa, where she met David Pritchard, a fellow student. They became a couple, moving to Greater Boston and spending time in Provincetown, where she was awarded consecutive fellowship years at the Fine Arts Work Center.

They married in 1978, and she published a book of poetry and wrote plays as they settled in Swampscott. David, now retired, was an editor at Houghton Mifflin, working on the American Heritage Dictionary.

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While she was a children’s librarian in Swampscott, Ms. Wittlinger read young adult novels and began writing her own.

“I realized it was like playwriting,” she told the Globe in 2000. “I loved it. There’s a lot of dialogue. They get dramatic fairly quickly.”

Ms. Wittlinger “was a wonderful mother, very loving and affectionate,” her daughter said. “She was a great observer of people and had a gift for seeing people as they were — what made them tick, what they were interested in.”

Though Ms. Wittlinger told the Globe she never based a character on one of her children, “I have stolen a line here or there from their friends. I drive them places and listen and think, ‘Oh, what a great line.’ I take it home and copy it down and wait for the right moment to use it.”

A service will be announced for Ms. Wittlinger, who, in addition to her husband and daughter, leaves a son, Morgan Pritchard of Los Angeles, and two grandchildren.

“To say that Ellen Wittlinger was a trailblazer is beyond an understatement,” Justin Chanda, senior vice president and publisher of children’s trade imprints at her publisher, Simon and Schuster, said in a statement quoted on the Publishers Weekly website.

“For decades she wrote engaging, searing books that never shied away from showing all facets of love, identity, and sense of self,” Chanda said. “She was an absolute pioneer of LGTBQ+ literature, a fierce advocate for all voices, and a genuinely warm and wonderful human being.”

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Terri Schmitz, former proprietor of The Children’s Bookshop in Brookline, which closed in April, told the Globe in 2000 that Ms. Wittlinger was “really unusual in that she writes books for young adults that are funny. So many are dark and dreary, and terrible things happen. Her books deal with serious topics, but have a light touch.”

For Ms. Wittlinger, seeing “Hard Love” named by the Young Adult Library Services Association a Printz Award Honor Book in 2000 for excellence in YA literature was a turning point.

“Even though it was my third YA novel, winning a major prize gave me a feeling of acceptance in the field that I hadn’t had before,” Ms. Wittlinger told author Cynthia Leitich Smith in 2000. “Suddenly I felt confident about saying, ‘Yes, this is what I do — I write novels for teenagers.”


Bryan Marquard can be reached at bryan.marquard@globe.com.