Also: my apologies for whatever funky thing your monitor is doing to the above illustration. I have no explanation and have given up any attempt to find one.
Just before reading my first Konigsburg novel, I had — for the first time — quit a book mid-read. The book was about two cousins that hated each other, when unexpectedly one of them dies and the other is left to think about it. The subject arose abruptly, smack in the middle of the page staring at me. I remember rereading the paragraph, making sure I'd understood it right. I had. I quietly, heart pounding, put the book back in my closet.
I was an eager 10-year-old, perfectly primed, when I found From The Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. It was at the bottom of a forgotten book pile in the basement, and I wasn't thrilled with the bland book cover and long, confusing title at first (this coming from a fifth grader). I had never left the west, but was transported to 1960s New York, and in awe of the capable Claudia Kinkaid who convinces her younger brother Jamie to runaway with her to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. This was not your typical running away story; it was running away in style, wrought by the old comforts of a museum and the newfound camaraderie of a brother and sister still and often prone to long winded arguments. They manage by sleeping in dead royals' beds and hiding in bathrooms and bathing in a fountain sparkling with pocket change (I never looked at a fountain the same way again; every mall, every garden, every wide-eyed toddler throwing their money into the water was an imagination of my own possible survival). And aside from the charm of transistor radios, and ancient artifacts, and spontaneous fountain bathing, I was painfully invested in the brother/sister act that allowed the Kinkaids to survive; I was entranced by the final meeting with the kooky and wise Mrs. Frankweiler; I shared Claudia's long awaited, personal realization.
The last chapters of the book come dappled with truth—call it theme. It's where Konigsburg un-muddles the complex and quietly tells us this is what it's about and it's for everybody. Mrs. Frankweiler explained,
“I think you should learn, of course, and some days you should learn a great deal. But you should also have days when you allow what is already in you to swell up inside of you until it touches everything and you can feel it inside you. If you never take time out to let that happen, then you just accumulate facts, and they begin to rattle around inside you. You can make noise with them, but never really feel anything with them it's hollow.”
And so went my initiation to Konigsburg's first bit of magic. She never left me feeling stunned or blindsided or displaced or confounded, but rather subtly finding myself different and more my own all at once.
Among numerous awards, this book won the Newbery Medal in 1968 and in 2012 was noted as one of the “Top 100 Chapter Books” of all time. It is a book that has simply endured, amidst remarkable odds, keeping its ranks among Lowry, L'Engle and Rowling.
When E.L. Konigsburg passed away, I felt a loss so tangibly personal. I felt the loss of a great author, yes, and even more the loss of a muse for my own writing. But I also felt a fear that Konigsburg might get lost at the bottom of the book pile in place of supernaturals and boyfriend clubs, fallen angels, throngs of amnesiac teen girls. A fear that among the push for “edgier” literature, Konigsburg would be rendered irrelevant. Author Shannon Hale recently shared that one of her most beloved and highly awarded novels, The Goose Girl was rejected by all major publishers. Some expressed, “I did not find the story compelling enough to maintain my interest ... I felt that the narrative was a bit too labored, too slow in progressing ... the rather slow and deliberate pacing of the plot does not bode well for a middle grade audience." "Further, many young adult books are becoming more and more 'edgy.'”
The Young Adult market may be fast-paced and often salacious in the name of relevancy and Attention Deficit Disorders. But there must always be a place for “intelligent fiction.” There's a reason books like Hale's, despite a publisher’s opinion, rise to wild popularity after finally being allowed the freedom of publication. In the name of edgier literature we deeply underestimate the caliber of our youth. We are blinded by trends, lost in sales numbers, our eyes so deliriously glued to the latest vampire spinoff that when an incredible author is lost, we almost miss it. Konigsburg didn't expect her young readers to be smart — she knew they were. Books like The Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler endure because there is still some inner workings of our youth's subconscious that yearns to be validated, even reminded of who they can be and who they once were.
Before Harry and Katniss, Percy and Bella, there was Claudia: an ordinary girl, capable and smart, who — aside from making her mark in the MET — knew, above all, how to keep a secret.