Ellen Levine, an author whose historical accounts of struggling immigrants and persecuted minorities illuminated complex social issues for children and young adults in clear and concise prose, died May 26 at a hospital in New York. She was 73.
She had lung cancer, said her wife, Anne Koedt.
Levine was a lawyer and producer for CBS documentaries before she became a celebrated author of more than 20 books.
Her writing career rose to prominence in the early 1990s, and her works included illustrated stories for children, novels for young adults and critical assessments of radical feminism.
The New York Times called her nonfiction book “Freedom’s Children” (1993), about black teenage activists of the civil rights era, “nothing short of wonderful.”
“Clearly written and beautifully constructed,” the Times review continued, “her book interweaves a strong, forward-moving narrative of significant events with the personal accounts.”
The book earned an award from the Jane Addams Peace Association, an organization that promotes social justice and equality.
While conducting research for a book about slaves during the Civil War, Levine read William Still’s 1872 book about the Underground Railroad network used by slaves seeking freedom. In that book, Levine stumbled across the tale of Henry Brown, a slave who mailed himself north.
“Henry’s Freedom Box,” her 2007 book about him, with illustrations by Kadir Nelson, was a finalist for the prestigious Caldecott Medal for outstanding American picture book for children.
“I was awed by Henry’s ingenious plan and his courage in undertaking it,” Levine said in an interview with the educational publisher Scholastic. “That he built a box not even three feet square and mailed himself to freedom, seemed to me a remarkable idea; that he traveled in that box for some 27 hours with only a little water and a few biscuits, equally astonishing; that he survived to tell the tale, our great fortune.”
Ellen Deborah Levine was born March 9, 1939, in New York. She was a 1960 graduate of Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass., and received a master’s degree in political science from the University of Chicago in 1962. She worked on documentaries for CBS before graduating from New York University’s law school in 1979. As a lawyer, she worked for the Prisoners Rights Project, providing legal advice to inmates.
She wrote a series of educational books published by Scholastic including, “If Your Name was Changed at Ellis Island” (1993) and “If You Lived at the Time of Martin Luther King” (1994). She also published “Darkness over Denmark,” about the rescue of 8,000 Jews from German concentration camps (2000), and “A Fence Away From Freedom,” about Japanese Americans held at internment camps during World War II (1995).
Levine explored the rights of women in her 2011 novel, “In Trouble,” about pregnant teenagers in the 1950s seeking abortions. Her last book, “Seababy,” with illustrations by Jon Van Zyle, about a sea otter pup that loses its mother, was published this year.
In September, Levine married her partner of more than 40 years, Anne Koedt. In addition to her wife, of New York, survivors include a sister.