Phyllis Ayame Whitney was born on September 9, 1903, to Charles Joseph Whitney and Mary Lillian Mandeville. Her American-born parents had been living in Asia. When their daughter was born in Yokohama, they gave her a middle name that means “iris” in Japanese. After her father died in 1918, Whitney and her mother returned to the United States and lived in California and Texas until her mother’s death in San Antonio in 1922. Whitney lived with her aunt in Chicago, where she graduated from high school in 1924. She married George Garner a year later. In 1928, she sold her first short story to the Chicago Daily News. She wrote in her spare time while she worked in the children’s room of the Chicago Public Library and later in area bookstores. Her daughter, Georgia, was born in 1934. Whitney had published more than one hundred short stories before her first book, the young-adult novel A Place for Ann (1941), was published.
Although in 1943 Whitney published an adult mystery, Red Is for Murder (later reissued as The Red Carnelion), in her early career she was primarily a writer of young-adult novels and mysteries. In three of her earliest books, A Star for Ginny (1942), Ever After (1943), and The Silver Inkwell (1945), her young female protagonists work toward a career in publishing, two as illustrators of children’s books and one as an author. In 1942, Whitney began a four-year stint as a children’s book editor for the Chicago Sun. She held the same position on The Philadelphia Inquirer from 1947 to 1948. In 1945, she taught children’s fiction writing at Northwestern University. Two years later, she produced a nonfictional book, Writing Juvenile Fiction, which she updated in 1976. She taught a similar course for ten years at New York University between 1947 and 1958.
In 1945, Whitney and Garner divorced. Two years later, she published the most prescient of her young-adult novels, Willow Hill. The book explores the reaction of a young white girl and her friends to the integration of a neighborhood housing project. The topic was so controversial that Whitney had to search for a publisher, but the book won a Youth Today contest as well as Book World’s Spring Book Festival Award. Seven years later, she tackled a similar subject in A Long Time Coming (1954), when her young heroine attempts to heal the rift between Hispanic migrant workers and the residents of the Midwest farm town that employs them.
Whitney married Lovell F. Jahnke in 1950. The couple lived on Staten Island, New York, for twenty years, and until Jahnke’s death in 1973, they traveled together to places that became locations in Whitney’s books. By 1950, Whitney had begun alternating between young-adult novels and young-adult mysteries, publishing approximately one per year. With the publication of The Quicksilver Pool (1955), Whitney added adult mysteries to this rotation, and by 1960, she was primarily alternating between adult and young-adult mysteries, often using a similar setting for each. For example, the young-adult mystery Secret of the Samurai Sword (1958) and the adult mystery The Moonflower (1958) both take place in Kyoto, Japan; The Secret of the Tiger’s Eye (1961) and Blue Fire (1961) take place in South Africa; The Secret of the Spotted Shell (1967) and Columbella (1966) take place in the Virgin Islands.
In 1961, The Mystery of the Haunted Pool (1960) won the Edgar Allan Poe Award for best juvenile mystery. Three years later The Mystery of the Hidden Hand (1963) won the same award as well as the 1963 Sequoia Children’s Book Award. By 1975, when Whitney was elected president of the Mystery Writers of America, she had published twenty adult mysteries and nineteen young-adult mysteries. In 1988, the Mystery Writers of America designated Whitney a Grand Master of the genre. Two years later, she received the Malice Domestic Award for lifetime achievement. In 1995, the Society of Midland Authors presented her with a lifetime achievement award. Whitney died at the age of 104 on February 8, 2008 in Virginia.