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September 2, 2014

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E.L. Konigsburg Remembered, Celebrated for Inspiring Kids to Be Themselves

Newbery Medalist Elaine Lobl Konigsburg, author of From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler and 18 other books for children, died Friday at a hospital in Falls Church, VA, after suffering a stroke. She was 83. The author, better known as E.L. Konigsburg, is credited for writing specifically for middle-school aged children decades before it was targeted as a specific audience. She will also be remembered fondly for her creativity, her humor, and her intricate storytelling that celebrated each kid’s uniqueness, her friends, colleagues, and fans tell School Library Journal.

Konigsburg PQ Blume E.L. Konigsburg Remembered, Celebrated for Inspiring Kids to Be ThemselvesFrom the Mixed-up Files… (Atheneum, 1967), for which Konigsburg also provided illustrations, is perhaps her best-known and most beloved book. The story is about a girl, Claudia, and her younger brother Jamie who run away from their suburban home to New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. Their adventure leads them to unravel a mystery behind a Renaissance sculpture.

At the time of its publication, the book was reviewed by Elva Harmon for SLJ. She wrote, “[This] is the kind of book our increasingly sophisticated pre-teens ask for, and it has almost all they hope for in a book: humor, suspense, intrigue, and their problems acknowledged seriously but not somberly.” The book was adapted twice, in 1973 as a motion picture called The Hideaways with Ingrid Bergman playing Mrs. Frankweiler, and again in 1995 for television, with Lauren Bacall in the title role.

Upon accepting her Newbery for the book, Konigsburg talked about her storytelling and writing process. “[I try to] let the telling be like fudge-ripple ice cream,” she said. “You keep licking the vanilla, but every now and then you come to something richer and deeper and with a stronger flavor.”

Konigsburg once told a school librarian that the Metropolitan Museum was not pleased with her book because it gave too many children the idea of hiding in the museum and taking a dip in the Fountain of the Muses. (The fountain was removed several years ago during a renovation project and now makes its home at Brookgreen Gardens in Murrels Inlet, South Carolina.)

However, 30 years after the book’s publication, the museum finally embraced the book, dedicating an entire issue of Museum Kids to following the footsteps of the books’ characters. In the special Met publication, Konigsburg tells of her initial inspiration: her sighting of a piece of popcorn on a chair in one of the museum’s historical period room displays, which led her to imagine that perhaps someone had snuck past the velvet ropes one night.

She also defends her characters to future museum visitors: “Do you see a beautiful blue silk chair? If you do happen to spot a single piece of popcorn on that chair, I, E. L. Konigsburg, want you to know that neither Claudia nor Jamie left it there. For the past thirty-three years that their spirits have been inhabiting The Metropolitan Museum of Art, they have never been that careless. Never!”

Konigsburg’s first book for kids, Jennifer, Hecate, Macbeth, William McKinley, and Me, Elizabeth (Atheneum, 1967), went on to receive a Newbery Honor in 1968, the same year as her Newbery Medal for From the Mixed-up Files….  She is the only author in Newbery history to achieve that distinction. The story was inspired by the difficulty Konigsburg’s daughter had in adjusting to her family’s move to Port Chester, NY in Westchester Country. Ruth Hill Viguers, in her Horn Book review, said the book was “full of humor and of situations completely in tune with the imaginations of ten-year-old girls.”

Konigsburg also holds the distinction of longest span of time between winning Newbery Medals. In 1997, 29 years after winning her first Newbery, she was recognized for The View from Saturday (Atheneum, 1996), a story told in the four voices of members of a middle-school quiz bowl team.

Konigsburg color PhotoCreditRonKunzman E.L. Konigsburg Remembered, Celebrated for Inspiring Kids to Be Themselves

Photo credit: Ron Kunzman.

“Careful prose is well adapted into a funny, realistic, caring portrait through clear and varied voices,” wrote Angela Reynolds in her SLJ review at the time. “No bells and whistles are needed to bring this winner to life, just a skilled reading.” Julie Cummins, coordinator of Children’s Services at the New York Public Library, also wrote a review, in it noting, “this sparkling story is a jewel in the author’s crown of outstanding work.”

Two of Konigsburg’s other books were nominated for the National Book Award in the children’s category, A Proud Taste for Scarlet and Miniver (Atheneum, 1973) and Throwing Shadows (Atheneum, 1979), for which she also received an American Book Award nomination.

“She was certainly one of the giants in children’s literature,”  Pat Scales, chair of the American Library Association’s Intellectual Freedom Committee and close friend of Koningsburg, tells SLJ. “Each of her books offered readers a little something different, but always with enough humor and mystery to pull them into the larger meaning of her themes. The loss feels heavy right now, but she will live on through her books that will always be with us.”

As word of her death spread, additional tributes began to spring up online from her colleagues in the kid lit community.

“A gifted writer whose books inspired me. One of the most creative people I’ve ever met,” tweeted Judy Blume, while author John Green tweeted, “Konigsburg was one of my first favorite authors, and she remained so: I loved her 2000 novel Silent to the Bone (Atheneum) so much.”

Jo Knowles, author of See You at Harry’s (Candlewick, 2012) tells SLJ, “I don’t think a single child who read From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler ever experienced a museum the same way again,” she says. “Even now, I sometimes find myself wondering which exhibit I would sleep in if I ever got trapped inside.”

Laurel Snyder, author of Bigger than a Breadbox (Random House, 2011), loved Konigsburg as a child and now as a mother and author feels that, “The kids in her books were such complete individuals. They were so independent, defiant and adventurous, but also thoughtful.”

C.A. London, author of the “Accidental Adventures” (Puffin) series, was influenced by Konigsburg in his own writing. “She was a pioneer in capturing the unique genius in the voices of 12 year olds,” he says. “She did, of course, influence me: In the Accidental Adventures, the series starts with Oliver and Celia, upset by a perceived injustice, deciding to run away. Sound familiar?”

Konigsburg’s wry sense of humor is remembered by those who knew her. Sharron McElmeel, a literacy advocate and children’s and young adult literature specialist, remembers the time when one of Konigsburg’s children came home and told her that her book Jennifer, Hecate, Macbeth, William McKinley, and Me, Elizabeth had been an answer in a college bowl trivia contest. “She was thrilled to have such acclaim—until she realized it was a trivia contest,” McElmeel says.

Lee Bennett Hopkins, a poetry anthologist, recalls the time he mentioned to Konigsburg that he was invited to speak somewhere but his schedule was so full that he couldn’t make it. “Dear man,” she told him. “Never tell anyone you ‘can’t make it!’ Tell them you’ll be out of the country at that time. It sounds so much more—exotic!”

Teacher and blogger Monica Edinger recalls being fortunate enough to meet Konigsburg a few times. “She was definitely one of the classiest and smartest people I have ever read or met,” Edinger says. “I hope that her books will continue to provide the same intellectual and aesthetic pleasure for others that they have for me.”

Konigsburg was born February 10, 1930, to Adolph Lobl and Beulah Klein Lobl. She grew up in Farrell, PA, and graduated with a degree in chemistry from Carnegie Mellon University.  In 1952, she married Dr. David Konigsburg and moved to Jacksonville, FL. The family relocated several times during Dr. Konigsburg’s career, but eventually retuned to Jacksonville and settled at Ponte Vedra Beach.

Konigsburg wrote and painted throughout her life. In addition to her 16 children’s novels, she illustrated three picture books and published a collection of her speeches. Her work has been translated into over a dozen languages, according to her family. She was a featured speaker at schools, universities, and libraries. She is survived by her three children, Paul, Laurie and Ross; five grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren. Donations may be made in her honor to the American Heart Association or the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators.

Rocco Staino About Rocco Staino

Rocco Staino @RoccoA is the retired director of the Keefe Library of the North Salem School District in New York. He is now a contributing editor for School Library Journal and also writes for the Huffington Post.

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  1. I have enjoyed & shared Ms. Konigsburg’s books over the years.
    I had the opportunity to hear her speak several times.
    My best memory is when I got to interact one-on-one with her. Our son was about 18 months old and she held him during our conversation. (It was shortly before she wrote Samuel Todd’s Book of Great Colors).
    She will be missed.