The problem about getting older is that the people you know become the people you knew. Never has this been clearer than this winter, which for those in the Midwest has been cold, dark and unending. It has been a winter of loss, personal and public, and the most recent caught me by surprise. E. L Konigsburg passed away over the weekend, and although not young, it still came as something of a shock – because in life her work seemed so timeless.
Others are more qualified to judge the merit of her work, although there is little debate about its universal appeal. She won the Newbery twice, one of only five authors to do so. Her first two books were published the same year, for those she won a Newbery Honor and the Medal, and she is the only author to ever to have managed that.
Her masterpiece was her second book, From the Mixed-Up Files of Ms Basil E. Frankweiler, but that wasn’t my first exposure to her. That would be her first book, “Jennifer, Hecate, Macbeth, William McKinley, and Me, Elizabeth. I’m sure I chose it because I was a precocious little thing, and no doubt thought such a long title would impress my teachers. I ended up being mostly confused; there were no robots or motorcycle riding mice. Their was a character who said she was a witch (well and good,) but she didn’t do any fancy magic. When the book ended, I immediately did the most natural thing in the world for a kid who’s fallen in love. I read it again.
(I don’t think I’m the only one: when I finished Rebecca Stead’s recent Liar & Spy, I thought Mrs. Stead must be a card carrying member of the Kongisburg Fan Club.)
From the Mixed-Up Files I’ve read lord knows how many times. Even more so than Jennifer, it set the tone for much of the rest of my life. It opened up a world other than the worlds of science fiction and fantasy I had been consuming. It made me appreciate smart, independent heroines, something that would get me into trouble several years later when I started appreciating smart, independent young women. It made me feel the importance of a mystery. And perhaps most importantly it made me appreciate the value of curiosity. As Monica Hesse has pointed out (http://wapo.st/109ypsu ) Claudia and Jamie don’t run away to have wacky hi-jinks. They spend their time hanging around in an art museum, attempting to unravel a centuries’ old mystery. For a young kid who felt a bit of an outsider, Ms. Frankweiler opened the door and allowed me to follow my own curiosity, knowing that I was in good company. Ms. Frankweiler made me feel like I wasn’t so alone.
And she was just getting started. Mrs. Konigsburg would have a long and illustrious career, with many well deserved honors. I especially appreciated her Outcasts of 19 Schuyler Place, perhaps because it featured another smart heroine. In this way perhaps she reminds me of another wicked smart writer who wrote mysteries, Ellen Raskin. Both women wrote about outsiders, wrote about the joy solving mysteries, wrote about finding out you’re not as alone as you sometimes think you are. Most importantly, they wrote with honesty about the world, they never pretended things weren’t as bad as they were, bur made you believe they could always be better.
And now she is gone. This is usually the point where you say, “they live on forever in their work,” and that would be true. But Kongisburg was one of a kind. She didn’t write in any genre but her own, she wrote about a wide ranging set of interests, and she treated her readers like they were the smartest kids in the world. She didn’t write about superheroes. She just made us feel like one.