12 March 2011

E.L. Konigsburg

A close friend and former roommate, Elizabeth Chapman, used to work in publicity for a New York publisher. So it was with the benefit of experience that she once advised me: if ever I saw that an author I liked was signing books, I should go. Whereas readings typically draw somewhat larger crowds, and celebrity authors’ signings bring out all manner of fans, a book-signing by a “normal” author offered excellent chances of a conversation, brief but satisfying. Which is to say, something more than, “Could you please sign it ‘To Mittens with all my love’?”

It was with this sage counsel ringing in my ears that I left work in the middle of the afternoon, one day back in the 1990s, and headed downtown to Books of Wonder, the children’s bookstore in Chelsea. I’d seen an announcement that E.L. Konigsburg would be signing, and I hoped to tell her how much her novels — two in particular — meant to me growing up.

Konigsburg burst on the scene in 1968, scoring a double play: she won both the Newbery Medal and a Newbery Honor award. No one has done so before or since. Our family held the Newberys in high esteem, and I must have wasted little time before turning to the new laureate’s work. I started with her first book, the Honor recipient, Jennifer, Hecate, Macbeth, William McKinley, and Me, Elizabeth, then devoured her second, the Medal-winner, From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. Both books (first pubished in 1967) made a tremendous impact on me, and they’ve stayed with me ever since.

Now I was able to tell her so, because when I arrived at Books of Wonder, Konigsburg and her publisher’s representative had signed the last customer’s books: we were pretty much alone in the store. We must have chatted for half an hour, while I bought new copies of old favorites, and she obligingly signed them all. Captivated by her conversation, I even bought a copy of Talk Talk, a collection of essays, so that her engaging voice would be available to me at any moment.

The more we talked, in fact, the more delighted I was: E.L. Konigsburg was the fulfillment of my childhood ideal, the really cool grown-up, exactly what I’d hoped and suspected she would be. Smart, funny, creative (of course), and interested in everything. Passionate about books and art and education. (She’s a former science teacher.) Resolute in her refusal to talk down to children — or to anyone.

It was like that fantasy of going to a friend’s house after school and finding out that his mom gives a damn. I could imagine her supervising elaborate art projects and quizzing me about what books I liked, playing new music and quoting Shakespeare. In reality, a couple of my friends’ mothers really were like that, as were Ann and Andrea, my mother’s best friends in our old neighborhood in Houston: we kids might spend most of the afternoon tearing down the house, but every now and then, these women would stick their heads in the playroom, challenge our minds, and open our horizons.

Konigsburg has written many books (and won a second Newbery Medal, in 1997), representing the broad spectrum of her interests, from baseball to Renaissance art; some are set in the American suburbs, others in the historical past. But Jennifer and The Mixed-up Files will always be special to me. To this day, I’ve seldom encountered any novels, for any reading public, that were more imaginative or more honest.*

The Mixed-up Files tells of a sister and brother who run away from home and “hide out in” the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Konigsburg’s ingenuity was so great in detailing exactly how it would be possible for two kids to live in the museum, that the Met had to change its security procedures: her scheme really would have worked, and real kids must have been tempted to try it. It’s like My Side of the Mountain, only with paintings. The subsequent movie adaptations** required the Met to overhaul security all over again, and yet it seems a small price to pay, since hardly anything ever devised can have done more than the Frankweiler story to get children excited about museums — and about art.

The heroine, Claudia, becomes obsessed with the statue of an angel, and sets out to learn whether its sculptor was Michelangelo; the answer, she believes, lies with the donor, the eponymous Mrs. Frankweiler. But clear-cut answers are hard to come by in real life, and Claudia has to do a great deal of growing up before she arrives at the truth.

Jennifer, Hecate, Macbeth, William McKinley, and Me, Elizabeth tells of the friendship between two lonely girls. Jennifer declares herself to be a witch and takes on Elizabeth as her apprentice; their sorcery games are depicted with Konigburg’s habitual attention to detail. But they also represent a power struggle between the girls, and the ups and downs of their friendship are often painfully evocative. There’s nothing cutesy or condescending — or melodramatic, for that matter — about this tale, which remains one of the most probing psychological portraits of childhood I’ve ever read.

Both books are illustrated with Konigsburg’s own pen-and-ink drawings. She’s a polymath, not a professional artist, and the sometimes-amateurish quality of the drawing lends her stories a quirky accessibility: the lack of polish makes them seem more real. And as a (naïf?) child reader, my only clue that Jennifer is black came from Konigsburg’s illustrations.

Konigsburg told me that hearing from grown-up fans is a particular pleasure for her; apparently, it’s not unheard-of for two people to discover a shared enthusiasm for her books, then to fall in love and marry. A few have even named their children after Claudia and Jamie Kincaid.

I can’t remember all the things we discussed that afternoon, but we closed down the shop, and I was running late for the Evening News. I hurried back to my office on a kind of golden cloud, with extra copies of Mixed-up Files for colleagues who hadn’t read it yet. And I phoned Elizabeth Chapman with the happy report that the author had more than lived up to my most cherished expectations.

Not for the first time, I wished that I’d known E.L. Konigsburg when I was growing up. But then, it occurred to me: I had known her, in a way, all along.

UPDATE: The Metropolitan Museum of Art has embraced Mixed-up mania, at least enough to provide answers to “Frequently Asked Questions” about the book. The questions and answers can be found on the museum’s website, here. (Thanks to Michael Leddy for bringing this to my attention.)

*NOTE: Konigsburg’s gift for clear-eyed, realistic characterization is wonderfully demonstrated in Jamie Kincaid, the heroine’s brother in Mixed-up Files. He’s a smart-aleck, very funny without being a miniature Henny Youngman (as so many sassy kids in the movies are), while Claudia’s affection for him (sometimes mingled with exasperation) is always wholly believable.

**The first of these adaptations, starring Ingrid Bergman as Mrs. Frankweiler, featured the young Madeline Kahn in a cameo role. A later adaptation starred Lauren Bacall as Mrs. Frankweiler. There have been stage adaptations, as well, including at least one opera.


Anne said...

Thank you for yet another introduction to something that sounds wonderful. Especially in the middle of a sad and scary time.

Elaine Fine said...

"From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler" was the driving force of my childhood. It was far beyond a favorite book. It was a way of life.

I think about it every time I empty a wastebasket (where Claudia collected her un-punched train tickets among the lipstick-covered tissues), every time I go to a museum, every time I see a fountain, and every time I see a set of file cabinets. Really.

(My copy of the book, which was a gift from my Aunt Phyllis, is signed.)

William V. Madison said...

Elaine, I'm not at all surprised to learn that you're a real-life Claudia Kincaid! (And Anne, it's high time that you became one.)

Jean Brazil said...

I loved these books too, and if I remember correctly, I read a selection from the Mixed up files when in junior high. Thanks for bringing back wonderful memories!

Michael Leddy said...

It’s a great thing to be able to tell a writer how much their work meant to you in childhood (and beyond). For me it was Clifford Hicks and Alvin’s Secret Code.

From the Mixed-up Files is going to be part of my spring-break reading.

William V. Madison said...

This just in: Michael Leddy has written about Mixed-up Files on his blog: