Retro Reads: “Figgs & Phantoms” by Ellen Raskin

FiggsRaskin, Ellen. Figgs & Phantoms. Dutton, 1974. 176p. $16.99, ISBN 0525423672.

Ellen Raskin is best known for her Newbery Medal winning mystery The Westing Game, but her lesser known novel Figgs & Phantoms is just as much fun. This year is the 40th anniversary of the Newbery Honor book Figgs & Phantoms, which is a great reason to revisit this comic fantasy.
The story focuses on young Mona, daughter of used car salesman Newt Newton and former vaudevillian Sissie Figg, making Mona a Figg-Newton. Her extended Figg family members are the supporting characters in the story, which doesn’t feature any other children as dominant characters. Everyone has a funny name (including several townspeople), which adds a comic note.
The most sympathetic character is Mona’s uncle Flo, who is her closest friend. Both love books, and halfway through the story something tragic happens, and Mona goes in pursuit of Capri, where she thinks her uncle has gone.
Overall, the tone of the story and quirky characters will bring to mind the books by Lemony Snicket, combining humorous asides with tragedy, and a slightly morbid tone. Fans of Snicket’s work will certainly enjoy Figgs & Phantoms.
There are ink drawings here and there throughout the book drawn by the author; I was unaware Raskin was also an artist until I read she did the original cover for L’Engle’s Newbery Medal science fiction classic A Wrinkle In Time (1962).
The customer reviews on Amazon.com were very positive, almost universal in mentioning that this book was a little “odd,” and “not for every child. Other common descriptors include “bizarre,” “strange,” and even “psychedelic.” Looking at it with contemporary eyes, there will be many parents who will object to things in the books. For example, there is a brief discussion of the “n” word – but the word is spelled out, referring to a book by Joseph Conrad. There is also a brief mention of pornography, but both incidents seem very truthful and are not meant to evoke ire or controversy.
Raskin died when she was only 56, in 1984, which is sad for readers who enjoy her Raskinunusual style. Her final book was The Westing Game (1978), which is still quite popular. Seek out Figgs & Phantoms – in many ways, contemporary readers may be able to relate to it more than readers did 40 years ago. The tone of her writing is similar to Snicket (as already mentioned) as well as the films of Tim Burton and Johnny Depp, so the audience is definitely out there.
Penny Peck,  San Jose State Univ., SLIS

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