February 20, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Award-Winning Author Elaine Marie Alphin Dies at 58

Elaine Marie Alphin

Elaine Marie Alphin

Elaine Marie Alphin, a celebrated and award-winning children’s book and young adult writer, died August 19, following a long illness. She was 58.

Alphin, whose maiden name was Bonilla, was born in 1955 in San Francisco. Her aspirations to become a writer started early, when she was three years old. She and her father spent many hours walking together and and telling each other stories, an experience that cemented her desire to become a writer.

After attending Rice University in Texas, Alphin received a Watson Research Fellowship, a grant given to graduating college seniors to fund independent study and travel outside the United States. Alphin spent the next year in England, doing research for a novel she was writing about Richard III and his murder of his nephews. She assumed she would write fiction for adults, but she when met Arthur Alphin, whom she would later marry, he encouraged her to consider writing for a younger audience. She took the advice, turning her Richard III story into a work for middle-grade readers, Tournament of Time (Bluegrass, 1994).

Alphin made her publishing debut in 1991 with the middle-grade Ghost Cadet (Holt), the story of a boy named Benjy who helps the ghost of a cadet who died in the Civil War find a missing watch. The book was popular and resulted in a follow-up, Ghost Soldier (Holt, 2001).

CounterfeitSonAlphin also wrote for young adults, including Picture Perfect (Lerner, 2002) and The Perfect Shot (Carolrhoda, 2006). She addressed some dark, serious themes in age-appropriate ways. Counterfeit Son (Harcourt, 2000), which SLJ described as a “solidly written, fast-paced read,” centers on the 14-year-old son of a serial killer who targeted young boys. After suffering abuse and neglect from his father, the protagonist takes on the identity of one of his father’s victims. The novel was one of Alphin’s most successful YA works. It earned her the 2001 Edgar Award for Best Young Adult Mystery and was named a YALSA Quick Pick for Reluctant Young Adult Readers.

In Simon Says (Harcourt, 2002), Alphin developed a story about a talented and artistic teenager at a boarding school attempting to express himself through his paintings. The book also explored a same-sex relationship between the protagonist and another student. Alphin started writing the book in 1977 when she herself was struggling with the idea of becoming an artist, and Simon Says has resonated with readers more than any of Alphin’s other works, according to a 2007 interview with author Cynthia Leitich Smith.

ABearforMiguelAlphin’s creativity and enthusiasm for writing were noted by those who knew and worked with her. Shannon Barefield, former editorial director of Carolrhoda Books, who edited several of Alphin’s titles, told SLJ, “Working with Elaine was a joy because she cared with every fiber of her being about creating the best possible literature for young peoples—and she had the talent to match that passion. As a writer, she was the real deal, a creative wordsmith with a brilliant knack for storytelling. As a human being, she had a vitality and a generosity of spirit that I saw reflected in her relationships, her strong convictions, and most certainly her books.”

Alphin also wrote books for very young readers, such as A Bear for Miguel (1996) and Dinosaur Hunter (2003, both HarperCollins). Though her novels were well received, she was also noted for her quality nonfiction, including History Makers: Dwight Eisenhower (Lerner, 2004), which she cowrote with her husband, and Germ Hunter: A Story about Louis Pasteur (Carolrhoda, 2003), a Bank Street College Children’s selection. Andrew Karre, editorial director of Carolrhoda Books, who worked with Alphin on An Unspeakable Crime: The Prosecution and Persecution of Leo Frank (Carolrhoda, 2010), praised her: “I only got to work on one book with [Alphin], but I got to know her as a skillful writer, a dedicated researcher, and a human being with a keen eye for injustice. It’s a loss for readers everywhere that [she] didn’t get to tell more stories.”

In addition to her writing, Alphin was also an enthusiastic supporter of her fellow writers and an active voice on SLJ’s blogs. She was involved in writing workshops, conferences, and retreats. Fellow author Jane Yolen spoke of Alphin’s involvement in the online children’s publishing group The Pod. “Everyone who is a reader or in the children’s field knew [her] public face, her books, the wonderful way she treated her fans, her openness about her writing and researching process.”

. She also wrote a book for adults on the art of crafting children’s literature, Creating Characters Kids Will Love (Writer’s Digest, 2000).

Karen Grove, consulting editor at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, worked with Alphin on many of her novels. “[Alphin] was one of those authors editors dream about,” she told SLJ. “[She was] passionate about literacy and writing for children, always cheerful, and exceedingly interested and caring about everyone around her. She could brighten a day with nothing more than a call to say hello or an unexpected card in the mail. Some of my fondest memories are of the long conversations we had about family, books, [and] current events. Elaine had an incredible spirit, and she will be greatly missed by many.”

Mahnaz Dar About Mahnaz Dar

Mahnaz Dar (mdar@mediasourceinc.com) is Assistant Managing Editor for Library Journal and School Library Journal and can be found on Twitter @DibblyFresh.



  1. M Fontenot says:

    Elaine was my closest friend when we were in high school despite the fact that she was a year above me. We were in the drama department, and there was a message board where cast/crew members could leave written messages to each other. Ah, the days before twitter, facebook and other electronic forms of communication. I’ve saved all of the messages I received from Elaine; I have kept them since, say, 1973 or 1974. Tomorrow I will devote my day to rereading all of them. I never saw Elaine again after she graduated. We went our separate ways like many friends do. I moved abroad and she obviously began a wonderfully creative career. I’ve been searching for her online for the past couple of years, and today when I came across this terrible news, it made me cry.

    • Dear M. Fontenot: Elaine & her Pooh Bear were my roommates all through college. I went to the service for her in Bozeman, Montana, this week, where your reminisce was read aloud. I have a good guess at your first name, and I can tell you that she remembered you fondly and proudly. Many at the service talked about her mentoring talents. You could them she started early.

  2. Alphin’s most controversial book was about the murder of Mary Phagan and lynching of Leo Frank. It is a shame she won’t have the opportunity to release a second edition with corrections of factual errors.