Monday, April 22, 2013

Remembering E. L. Konigsburg

I was greatly saddened by the news that two-time Newberry Medal-winning author E. L. Konigsburg died Friday.  I remember her novel From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler (1968) as one of the books that made me believe, way back when, that I might grow up to be an author.

I don't recall the exact age at which I read Mixed-Up Files.  I was probably 9 or 10.  It was certainly before I encountered J. R. R. Tolkien (at age 13), another huge influence.  My old copies of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings have been lost and replaced, but my original paperback copy of Konigsburg's book is still on my shelves.  A few years ago, I read it aloud to my daughter.  With any luck, it'll still be on my shelves when it's time to read to my grandchildren.

Like all kids who dream of being writers, I read a lot.  I read whatever I could get my hands on, whether that was fantasy, sci-fi, history, travel, memoir, or anything else.  My mom seemed to buy a lot of books for my little sister, so I read a lot of what she had on her shelf, which meant a lot of Judy Blume, Laura Ingalls Wilder, and Roald Dahl.  (My older brother read nothing but sports biographies, one of the few genres that left me cold.)  I assume Mixed-Up Files was another book I nabbed from my sister, along with such titles as Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH and Charlotte's Web.

Even though I was reading it, I didn't know at that time that there was a genre called "middle grade" or "young adult" literature.  Maybe the terms hadn't yet been developed by the industry.  All I knew was that certain books resonated with me, inspired me.  Made me say, "Man, I wish I had written that!"

Mixed-Up Files was at the top of that list.  It blew me away.  It was a coming-of-age story, a mystery, an adventure novel, an introduction to art history (I'd never heard of Michelangelo before), and more all at once.  The story seemed so simple--two kids run away and hide out in a museum--but at the same time it amazed me how much surprise, insight, and raw life Konigsburg wrung out of that premise.  I loved the characters, especially Claudia; I think I even had a little crush on her.  The story turned out exactly as I felt it had to, and yet still it made me feel as if I'd never seen the end coming.  To this day, I'm not sure how Konigsburg pulled it off.

There are so many favorite passages I could pull from this book, but here's one that strikes a particular chord for me:

I think you should learn, of course, and some days you must 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 of you.  You can make noise with them, but never really feel anything with them.  It's hollow.

As a teacher, a parent, a writer, and a human being, that passage speaks to me strongly, tells me what kind of life I want to live.

Thank you, E. L. Konigsburg, for giving this to me.

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