Today, I heard via Facebook that E.L Konigsburg has died. After the wave of sadness passed, my thought was that she couldn’t have been old enough to die. I know this reaction–it comes from being of middle-age in terms of years and body, but still being connected. by an unbroken thread, to the child who first read an author’s books: E.L. Konigsburg’s. Phyllis Whitney’s. Margot Benary-Isbert’s. The sense that both I and those authors are still, and always will be, the age we were when we first met.
E.L. Konigsburg is one of the authors who I got to read in more than one generation. Of course I read From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler when I was young. Oh, boy, how I wanted to be Claudia. I wanted not only to sleep overnight in the Metropolitan Museum of Art; I wanted not only to be smart enough to set the whole thing up and make it happen; I wanted not only to bathe in the fountain. Mostly, I wanted to have the courage that Claudia had, the drive to do that one very big, very different thing, to take that step and that risk, and to see it through to the end. The search through Mrs. Frankweiler’s files may not be the most adventurous section of the story, it may have a quietness to it that doesn’t involve hiding from museum guards and avoiding the truant police, but it is the scene that completes the story, that most clearly demonstrates who Claudia is and where her power and courage lie.
I’m also pretty sure I read Jennifer, Hecate, Macbeth, William McKinley, and Me, Elizabeth. I seem to remember the witch storyline, but I may be confusing it with one of Zilpha Keatley Snyder’s books, maybe The Egypt Game. Obviously, I have some rereading to do.So many of my favorite books from my childhood were one-offs, or two-offs, authors I found in the Scholastic Book Order Forms, but who either didn’t publish many more books or whom I didn’t track down to discover other titles. Konigsburg, though, (like Keatley Snyder) was one of the writers I read in the seventies who hung around, who continued writing for the next many years, who not only kept her older books in print, but also wrote new things during the years I stepped away from reading books for children. (Yes, those years actually existed!) And she was one of the authors I rediscovered after I had a son.
I remember reading From the Mixed-up Files to my son. It was one of the books I knew needed to be a read-aloud, because–yes, it had an old-fashioned feel by the time he was old enough for it, and–yes, it was told from the point of view of a girl, and, yes–the boy character wasn’t a sure bet for reader-character identification. But still, I knew, if we just got a ways into it, that my son would like it. And he did. If I remember right, he loved the same things I had, although I didn’t remember all of them. Jamie’s money…that was a wow. Hiding in the bathroom stalls, collecting more money from the fountains. And, yes, Mrs. Frankweiler. She appears, in person, only at the very end, but what a character. What a presence. I have never seen the movie (something else to rectify, but I’ve always thought that Lauren Bacall would have played her perfectly. Just the right amount of high intelligence and curiosity, just the right amount of potential disdain, if you messed up.
And when I reread From the Mixed-up Files with my son, I went on my own exploration, the one I hadn’t done when I was his age. I started reading more of Konigsburg’s books than I had years before. I did read Jennifer, Hecate… I read About the B’nai Bagels, Up From Jericho Tel, T-Backs, T-Shirts, COATS, and Suit. I read and LOVED A Proud Taste for Scarlet and Minerva.
Some of those books felt like going home. Konigsburg wrote about the sixties and the seventies while she was living in them. Okay, a lot of authors did that. But she wrote about them as though she lived those years as a child. I was not Claudia. I was not Elizabeth. I didn’t live in a big city. I didn’t live in an apartment. I didn’t roam around said big city by myself or with a friend. I didn’t have adventures, and I didn’t take my make-believe much beyond my bedroom or my books. But when I read those books that Konigsburg wrote about the years, I was young, I feel like I am reading about my world at that time. The sixties and seventies are getting play right now in historical novels, and I can accept that. I can even enjoy it. But those stories pick out important details and facts about those years and weave them into the story, to add that historical feel. Konigsburg’s early books are soaked in that time. The kids dress, talk, dream, and act (outside the adventures!) like we did. Their parents sound like ours sounded to us. And, yet, Konigsburg was already in her thirties when she wrote them. Okay, not all that old, no, but still…this is someone who understood the world around her, the world about and in which she was writing. She saw it in the way her audience, her readers, saw it. And, in some ways, she saw it in the way I still do. This is talent. This is writing.
I’m also pretty sure that Konigsburg broke rules. Not 100% positive, because, as much as I knew at that time that I wanted to be a writer, the only writing rules about which I was acutely aware were the (excellent and still applicable) advice Phyllis Whitney wrote in her books on writing and the rules about good grammar and spelling that every teacher drummed into me and that I saw in every book I read. I wasn’t thinking much about market at the time, or about what made/didn’t make a children’s book. But, hey, A Proud Taste for Scarlet and Minerva? A dead queen’s point of view on court politics? A book for kids? It didn’t matter, did it? Because E.L. Konigsburg wrote it, and it was good. Her kids were so real. Not just for the sixties and seventies. Her nice kids weren’t always all that nice, and her not-so-nice kids had their surprise moments of nicetude. . Personalities put together in a scene created dynamics. Not only conflict, not just plot-movement, but the very real feel you get when people of different sorts come into a shared space and interact.Everybody had a depth that feels harder to find today, but maybe that’s just nostalgia. Or maybe it’s just forgetting that Konigsburg was so brilliant and comparing her to the mass of writers today, instead of to the equally brilliant ones, of which we definitely have our share
Still. She was just so good. And I will miss her, both as the reader I was then and the one I am today.
R.I.P, E.L. Konigsburg. And thank you.