E.L. Konigsburg (1930-2013)
I’ve been meaning to write something about the authors we lost this year who’ve meant something to me. Before the year winds up, I thought I’d better get that done.
This picture shows the cover of one of my favorite books from childhood: From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. This is the actual book. I’ve kept it all these years. I was saddened to hear that that author, E.L. Konigsburg, died earlier this year, in April, at age 83. The funny thing is, I’ve never read any other books by her except this one. Mixed-Up Files was enough to carry with me all these years. Only recently have I realized the debt my writing owes to this book.
The story of the book doesn’t sound terribly remarkable. Feeling unappreciated in her white-bread Connecticut household, a young girl named Claudia decides to run away from home. She knows herself well enough to know that she requires money and comfort to pull off this caper. So she enlists the help of her brother Jamie, a master card cheat, who has the princely sum of $24 to his name. The two run away to New York City and move into the Metropolitan Museum of Art. By day, they educate themselves by tagging along with school groups. By night, they swipe pocket change out of the fountain and sleep in Marie Antoinette’s bed.
While living in their magnificent digs, Claudia becomes obsessed with nailing down the provenance of a mysterious statue of an angel, which the museum has recently acquired. Rumors identify the statue as the work of Michelangelo, but the experts beg to differ. Claudia and Jamie spend the remainder of their money to travel to the home of the statue’s last known owner of record, Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, who just might know the truth. Frankweiler offers the children a challenge: The truth is hidden somewhere inside her Mixed-Up Files. If they are clever enough, they can find the answer. The children accept, and what they discover in their search makes me want to cry forty years later.
I like two things about this book. It just took me until adulthood to figure them out.
One is that the book is supposedly written in the first person by Frankweiler herself, who doesn’t appear until the last quarter of the tale. Despite the fact that she won’t be present for most of the book, she tells us early on that since she’s interviewed the children extensively, she feels qualified to present this unbiased account. This narrative framework seems dodgy, but I’m currently using it with a book I’m writing. It seems to be working.
I think you should read Mixed-Up Files if you haven’t already, so I won’t give any spoilers. Suffice to say that the children solve the mystery, and Frankweiler—who by now you’ve realized is a proxy for Konigsburg herself—manages to save one last secret for the book’s final pages.
The second reason the book charmed me is that it’s remarkably wise. The author understands that all children—young and old—want to feel special, and solving a mystery is one of the best ways to arrive at that specialness.
Here’s the quote that sells it. Frankweiler, in a conversation with Jamie, says:
Claudia doesn’t want adventure. She likes baths and feeling comfortable too much for that kind of thing. Secrets are the kind of adventure she needs. Secrets are safe, and they do much to make you different. On the inside, where it counts.
Yes. Yes. Absolutely true. Konigsburg, throughout her long career, became known for spouting similarly profound gems in her writing. I sometimes like reading quotes people have pulled from her books. She was that good. Here’s another:
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 and touch everything. If you never let that happen, then you just accumulate facts, and they begin to rattle around inside of you.
When I was still working at Scholastic, one of my office mates was lucky enough to interview Konigsburg about one of her new books. Like me, my friend loved Mixed-Up Files and so she asked one too many questions about that book. Konigsburg bristled at this, saying Mixed-Up Files was one of her first books, it was old, and puh-leeze, she was trying to promote the new book.
These days I know in my heart how she must have felt. But Mixed-Up Files won the Newbery Award in 1967 and has touched millions of readers since. E.L. Konigsburg wrote a lot of great books, and I’m sure that in time I’ll read them all. But if I never do, all I need is this one.