This past Friday, E.L. Konigsburg died. In case you don’t recognize the name, she wrote From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler and was one of the most influential children’s book authors of the 20th century.
If you haven’t read From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, you should really go track it down immediately because it is delightful. It is about two suburban children–Claudia and her little brother Jamie–who run away from home to New York City and set up house in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. They eat from automats and sleep in the museum’s Tudor bed and end up solving a mystery before returning safely home. When I first read it, I lived in a tiny town in Texas and Claudia’s New York City seemed like another world. But I desperately wanted to see her world, and I put at least some of the responsibility for my love of big cities and current city residence on this book. Plus, the first time I went to New York, I went to the Met and tried to find the fountain where Claudia and her brother took their baths and collected coins. (I never did find it–I think if it ever was a real fountain, it’s not there anymore. Also, I’m sad I can’t eat at an automat.)
When I saw the news about Konigsburg (via Twitter, of course, because how else do I learn things these days), the first thing I thought of was From The Mixed-Up Files. But when I looked up her full catalog, I was reminded that she wrote a whole pile of books that I loved as a child–a partial list includes:
A Proud Taste for Scarlet and Miniver
Up from Jericho Tel
Father’s Arcane Daughter
Jennifer, Hecate, Macbeth, William McKinley, and Me, Elizabeth
Both as a kid and now as an adult, I loved that her stories always seemed to have a twist. A Proud Taste for Scarlet and Miniver is about Eleanor of Aquitaine, but rather than a simple historical fiction biography for kids, it is about Eleanor looking back on her life from Heaven, while waiting to see whether Henry II will get in. And Up From Jericho Tel is your basic friendship-between-two-outcasts except that in this case the two kids end up also befriending the ghost of Tallulah Bankhead. Yes, really. I also loved the way all these books give a lot of power to the opinions and needs of kids, without turning into “message” books. For example, in From The Mixed-Up Files, Claudia decides to run away from home not due to any dark secret, but because she is ready for adventure and feels like there is more to life than her elementary school routine. Sure, Claudia comes off as a little overdramatic, but the message I always took from the book was that it was imminently reasonable to wish for more. And while Claudia ultimately decides that she misses her family and the comforts of home, she also doesn’t give up on her adventure until she feels like she can return with something new and special that will change her everyday life. (I’m trying not to spoil this 40-year-old book, just in case someone decides to track it down for the first time based on my review.)
Konigsburg gave kids a lot of credit, both by creating child characters with agency and ideas, and by trusting that her readers could handle some ambiguity and the occasional ghost of an actress or queen. I was sorry to hear of her death, but so glad that she wrote as many wonderful books as she did.
Kinsey’s Three Word Review of E.L. Konigsburg: Go read everything!
You might also like: The Westing Game always reminded me of her books—a story with a heart where nothing is too obvious.