17 Wisconsin Authors for Book-Lovers to Explore
March 22, 2018
At Unison Credit Union, we believe in celebrating life in Wisconsin. That’s why we often use our blog to explore everything our communities have to offer. Not only is Wisconsin an incredible place, it also produces impressive people who’ve lived amazing lives.
To celebrate National Reading Month, we decided to take a closer look at the lives and writings of some of Wisconsin’s most famous authors. We also launched the Unison Battle of the Books, which benefits local libraries. Voting for this community effort has wrapped up, but you’ll want to see which library came out on top in the battle. Make sure to like Unison on Facebook and watch for the live announcement of the winner on March 28th!
As a great American novelist once said …
“Life can’t defeat a writer who is in love with writing, for life itself is a writer’s lover until death.”
1. Edna Ferber
The quotation above came from Edna Ferber, a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer from Appleton, Wisconsin. Ferber was honored with the Pulitzer for her 1924 novel, So Big. Her 1926 novel, Showboat, became a popular musical, and the 1929 novel, Cimarron, was adapted into an Academy Award-winning movie.
However, if you’re looking to read Ferber’s thoughts of her Wisconsin hometown, you should find her autobiography, A Peculiar Treasure, which describes her childhood impressions of Appleton.
Ferber, whose mother was a Wisconsin native, moved to Appleton from Chicago when she was 12 years old. She attended high school, went to Lawrence University, and eventually got a job writing for the Appleton Daily Crescent (now the Post-Crescent).
Ferber’s novels were known for featuring strong female characters. There is an elementary school in Appleton named after her.
2. Thornton Wilder
Thornton Wilder is easily one of the of the most renowned writers on our list. Wilder was born in Madison, but later moved around the country and the world, spending part of his childhood in China.
Thornton’s father, Amos P. Wilder, was once the owner and editor of the Wisconsin State Journal. The family lived in Madison until 1905, when Amos became American Consul General to Hong Kong.
While he’s best known as a playwright, penning legendary productions such as Our Town, Wilder also wrote several novels. They include The Bridge of San Luis Rey (1927), which won the Pulitzer Prize, and The Eighth Day, which won the National Book Award for Fiction in 1967.
3. Laura Ingalls Wilder
The second Wilder on our list of Wisconsin authors is a writer you’re most likely very familiar with. The life of Laura Ingalls and her family were documented in the Little House on the Prairie books and television program.
Of course, real fans know that it all started in Wisconsin. The first book in the series, Little House in the Big Woods, is based on Laura’s early childhood in Pepin, Wisconsin, and tells stories about homesteading and pioneer life.
In 2007, Little House in the Big Woods was named to the “Teachers’ Top 100 Books for Children.” In 2012, the School Library Journal ranked it No. 19 on a list of the best children’s novels.
Sidenote: There’s another famous Wilder from Wisconsin. He played an important character in the film adaptation of one of the selections in our Battle of the Books contest.
Do you know who it is?
4. Kevin Henkes
Several other accomplished children’s authors and illustrators hail from Wisconsin. Kevin Henkes received Caldecott Medal and Newberry Medal honors for some of his works.
Henkes is a Racine native who attended UW-Madison where he wrote his first book as a college freshman. He says many of his stories were inspired by the Wisconsin neighborhood where he grew up.
Henkes always thought he’d be an artist, but a teacher encouraged him to explore writing, and he found that creating books for kids was a great way to combine both his talents.
Some of the most popular books in Henkes’ collection are his so-called Mouse Books, featuring a group of adorable rodents. Those books include Sheila Rae the Brave and Chester’s Way.
5. Lois Ehlert
Nearly every little one learning the alphabet has read Chicka Chicka Boom Boom. It was illustrated by Lois Ehlert, who is a native of Beaver Dam, Wisconsin, and says she grew up in an artistic home where people were always making things.
As a children’s book author, Ehlert is a Caldecott winner for her book Color Zoo. Many of her works feature animals and nature along with vibrant images created using a unique style in which she cuts out shapes to make collages over pencil drawings.
Ehlert still calls Wisconsin home. She lives in Milwaukee in an apartment full of colorful folk art.
6. Ellen Raskin
Author and illustrator Ellen Raskin was a Milwaukee native who wrote children’s storybooks and young adult novels throughout the ’60s and ’70s.
Raskin won the Newberry Medal for her 1978 mystery novel, The Westing Game, which is about a group of heirs unraveling the secret of a man’s death based on clues he left in his will. That book ranks ninth on the School Library Journal’s list of the best children’s novels.
Raskin was also known for her artistic design skills. She created the artwork for many dust jacket covers, including the first edition of Madeline L’Engle’s, A Wrinkle in Time, which is another competitor in Unison’s Battle of the Books! Make sure to vote if that’s one of your favorites.
7. Ellen Kort
Ellen Kort holds the distinction of being named Wisconsin’s first poet laureate. Former Governor Tommy Thompson bestowed the honor upon her in 2000.
Kort grew up in Menominee but made her home in Appleton, up until her passing in 2015. She won numerous awards for her poetry, and her poems were even nominated for a Grammy. She was also very active in the Fox Valley arts and non-profit communities, and documented life in Wisconsin through her writing.
Kort authored books such as The Fox Heritage: A History of Wisconsin Fox Cities and The Art of Labor: Building the Fox Cities Performing Arts Center.
Ellen Kort Peace Park is being developed along the Fox River on Water Street in Appleton to celebrate her legacy.
8. Sterling North
Sterling North is best known for writing the beloved children’s book, Rascal, which received a Newberry Honor. It is based on his childhood experience raising a baby raccoon.
Rascal became a 1969 Disney movie as well as an extremely popular animated series in Japan. The Japanese series is credited for American raccoons being introduced to the country.
North’s parents were Wisconsin pioneers. He spent his youth in Edgerton, Wisconsin, and his former home there was restored and transformed into a museum.
North was also the literary editor for the Chicago Daily News where he was one of the first public figures to criticize comic books. Following the release of Superman, he called comics “a poisonous mushroom growth” that were “guilty of a cultural slaughter of the innocents.” That’s a little harsh, Sterling!
9. Stephen Ambrose
Many times, truth is stranger than fiction. Maybe that’s why Stephen Ambrose devoted his life to telling historical tales.
Ambrose was a well-known historian biographer who wrote about influential American events and people, including presidents Eisenhower and Nixon. He grew up in Whitewater, Wisconsin, and earned a Ph.D. in history from UW-Madison. In fact, Ambrose even played on the Wisconsin Badgers’ football team while earning his undergraduate degree at UW.
Many cite his most popular work as Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson, and the Opening of the American West. It stayed on the New York Times best seller list for 126 weeks.
Ambrose’s work and historical knowledge have been used in other mediums as well. He wrote the book the HBO miniseries Band of Brothers is based on, and he served as an executive producer. Ambrose was also a consultant for the film Saving Private Ryan.
10. Richard Schickel
Film critic and Milwaukee native Richard Schickel wrote books about pop culture history. As a critic, he wrote for both Time and Life magazines for decades.
As an author and Hollywood historian, Schickel wrote biographies about famous people such as Walt Disney, Clint Eastwood, and Marlon Brando. He also directed dozens of TV and film documentaries.
While he obviously must have loved movies, Schickel also understood the power of the written word. And, he realized that there’s a reason that we often say, “the book is better than the movie.” Schickel once wrote:
“A great novel is concerned primarily with the interior lives of its characters, as they respond to the inconvenient narratives that fate imposes on them. Movie adaptations of these monumental fictions often fail because they become mere exercises in interior decoration.”
11. Jack Finney
Many of the authors on this list have written books that were adapted for film or television. Jack Finney (another Milwaukeean) wrote a science fiction story that became an alien invasion story told over and over again on the big screen.
Finney’s book, The Body Snatchers, became the 1956 cult classic Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Yet, it didn’t end there. The film was remade in 1978 starring Donald Sutherland. There was a low-budget remake in 1993, and a 2007 version, Invasion, staring Nicole Kidman and Daniel Craig.
Finney’s other popular work was Time and Again, another sci-fi tale. It’s the story of a time traveling advertising man who uses hypnosis to access different eras of history. Finney authored a sequel in 1995, and left it open for a third novel, but that was never written.
12. John Ridley
You may know John Ridley for his work in movies and television, but his skill as writer is a big part what led to his show business success.
Ridley grew up in Mequon, Wisconsin, where his father was an ophthalmologist and his mother was a teacher. He pursued comedy after college, performing standup on late night television and writing for sitcoms such as The Fresh Prince.
Later, in life he would start writing novels. In the late ‘90s, Ridley worked with famed director Oliver Stone to adapt his first book, Stray Dogs, into the movie U-Turn. He’s written several other books and graphic novels since then. His novel Spoils of War was adapted into the movie, Three Kings, starring George Clooney, Ice Cube, and Mark Wahlberg.
More recently, Ridley won an Academy Award for his screenplay 12 Years a Slave, and he was the showrunner on the ABC anthology series American Crime. Not bad for a kid from Mequon!
13. Alice Sebold
Alice Sebold is a Madison-born author who has written about difficult subject matter, including her own experience being assaulted as a teenager.
Sebold’s first book was a memoir, and her second book, The Lovely Bones, was a supernatural novel about a young girl who watches from the afterlife as her family come to grips with her murder. It stayed on top of the NY Times’ best-seller list for five weeks.
The Lovely Bones was adapted into a feature film directed by Peter Jackson and starring Mark Wahlberg and Rachel Weisz. Sebold’s third book, The Almost Moon, came out in 2007.
14. A. Mannete Ansay
Getting picked for Oprah’s Book Club may not be a prestigious literary award, but it’s an accolade that’s made many writers’ careers. That includes A. Manette Ansay who grew up in Port Washington, Wisconsin.
Ansay’s novel, Vinegar Hill, was an Oprah Book Club selection in 1999. In 2005, Vinegar Hill was adapted into television movie starring Mary Louise Parker.
The story takes place in the ‘70s and follows the character of Ellen Grier and her family who return to live in a rural Wisconsin small town. Problems arise when they are forced to move in with Ellen’s in-laws and she uncovers some dark secrets.
Ansay has written six other books. She now lives in Florida where she teaches at the University of Miami.
15. Jim Knipfel
Jim Knipfel grew up in a military family that moved to Green Bay when he was a baby. Knipfel’s youth in Northeast Wisconsin wasn’t easy. He was diagnosed with a rare genetic disorder that would eventually cause him to go blind.
Knipfel’s first memoir, Slackjaw, tells the story of dealing with his disease and associated depression. The book is considered a comic memoir because Knipfel describes his pain and struggles using humor and sarcasm.
He’s authored nine other books such as The Buzz, The Blow, and Residue, as well as thousands of articles. That includes the Slackjaw column, which most recently ran in the New York Press.
Knipfel still has family in the Green Bay area, including a sister who is a public schoolteacher.
16. Mona Simpson
Mona Simpson is an accomplished novelist and a Green Bay native with a life story that has some interesting side notes.
To start, Simpson’s ex-husband, Richard Appel, has written for animated comedies like Family Guy, King of the Hill, and The Simpsons. Appel named the character of Homer Simpson’s mom after his wife in the episode, “Mother Simpson.”
We buried the lede here, however. Mona Simpson is also the younger sister of Apple co-founder, Steve Jobs. She didn’t meet Jobs until she was an adult. When they did finally connect, the siblings worked together to find their estranged father.
Simpson bases her fiction writing around real-life experiences. Her 1996 novel, A Regular Guy, is a fictional depiction of Steve Jobs. Simpson’s debut novel, Anywhere But Here, has hints of her own life, and is set in Wisconsin and Los Angeles. Anywhere But Here was adapted into a motion picture starring Susan Sarandon and Natalie Portman.
17. Kristen Radtke
We’ll wrap up our list of Wisconsin authors with one more former Green Bay resident.
Kirsten Radtke is a young writer and artist who has gained attention and praise for her first work, Imagine Only Wanting This. It is a graphic memoir that The Atlantic called “a breathtaking mix of prose and illustration.”
Imagine Only Wanting This, chronicles Radtke’s journeys around the world visiting places that are in ruin while asking big questions about existence.
Radtke will be back in her hometown of Green Bay for the 2018 UntitledTown book and author festival in April. She’ll be joined by a group of other accomplished and up-and-coming writers.
Unison Believes in the Power of a Good Book!
At Unison Credit Union, we believe it’s just as important to make deposits into your mind as your checking account. Whether it’s a historical true story or an imaginative work of fiction, you’ll always find a great read at your local library.
That’s why we’re giving back to several community libraries with the Unison Battle of the Books competition. Unison is donating thousands of dollars and, while everyone will win, you can help decide which of our four participating libraries is crowned winner of the Unison Battle of the Books.