This weekend brought the news that beloved children's author E.L. Konigsburg had died at the age of 83 after suffering a stroke the week before. Twitter has been awash in reactions from the generations who've grown up reading her books. The feeling was of sadness, but also of the enduring resonance of Konigsburg's work and how much she's meant, and continues to mean, to so many of us. In 1997 the author won the Newbery Medal for The View from Saturday, and nearly 30 years before, in 1968, she received the same award for From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. That book, probably her most popular, is now well into middle-age at more than 45 years old. But in our minds, the authors of our childhood favorites never grow old, nor does their writing.
For me, E.L. Konigsburg's From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler was one of those books that has pulled me back again and again, no matter my age. (My well-read copy is within reach of my bed, in fact.) In it, siblings Claudia and Jamie Kinkaid run away from home and live in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, upon Claudia's instructions—she brings Jamie along because he's a miser with a load of cash—and while they are there, the two become involved in a mystery about a statue that allows Claudia to return home just a bit different from how she started, which is all she really wanted in the first place.
I probably read the book for the first time when I was a little younger than 12-year-old Claudia, but I've also read it when I was many years older than she is in the book. Not only is it fun, full of secrets and suspense and compelling pacing, it's relatable, featuring the kind of pre-teen angst that no one is exempt from. It's also inspirational, though I wouldn't have put that word on it when I was a kid. Still, it is, and it was! I was inspired to solve mysteries, to love art, to run away and live in a museum (or to dream of doing so), to think big in terms of adventures, to hide my clothes in an instrument case and just go, because the possibilities of life were beyond the day-to-day grind (with paltry allowance) that as a pre-teen girl I actually lived. Even now, if I'm ever at a museum, particularly the Met, I think back to how Claudia and Jamie hid in the restrooms by standing on the toilets so no one would see their feet, and how they bathed in the fountain whenever they needed a little extra money.
For me this world that E.L. Konigsburg had created was so close to real (even though I lived in a suburb of Chicago, and never ran away from home) that I didn't need to actually do these things, too. I could read the book again and again and feel almost as if I had, free from adult constraints, finding myself in the pages, if not in the Met itself. Claudia was me; Jamie was my own brother. They were all of us, I think. Konigsburg's ability to understand and respect the challenges of being a kid—and to make kids and adults feel better while reading about characters who reflected those challenges themselves—is no small reason her books are so fantastic.
The year that Konigsburg won the Newbery Medal for From the Mixed-Up Files she was also awarded a Newbery honor for her novel, Jennifer, Hecate, MacBeth, William McKinley, and Me, Elizabeth, making her the only author to be recognized as a winner and a runner-up in one year. Over her lengthy career, she was prolific, writing 16 children's novels and illustrating 3 picture books, her family told the AP. From the Mixed-Up Files may be the most widely held favorite, but there are others, too. Sarah Weinman of Publisher's Marketplace has posted a tribute to About the B'Nai Bagels, "the book of hers I keep thinking about, since I read it about two dozen times as a kid," she explains. Konigsburg also wrote A Proud Taste for Scarlet and Miniver, Father's Arcane Daughter, Silent to the Bone, The Dragon in the Ghetto Caper, and a book I've never been able to get out of my head, (George), about a boy with, essentially, a split personality.
Konigsburg grew up in a family in which reading was "tolerated" and became an avid reader anyway. She was the first person in her family to get a college degree, and, after marrying and having children, began to write and illustrate when the youngest of her three kids started kindergarten. Thank goodness she did, thereby easing the growing pains of our adolescent struggles and turning us into book lovers and perhaps even writers. Legions of readers will not forget her, nor will we forget Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.
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