E.L. Konigsburg and Me, Elizabeth: Forty Years of Inspiration

Elizabeth Bluemle -- April 24th, 2013

E.L. Konigsburg had a glorious mind and she wasn’t afraid to use it. I was an advanced reader at a young age and drank in her smart, unusual books like refreshing, even necessary, water. She was brilliant, her characters were smart and/or interesting without being precious, and her stories carved out new territory time and again. Like Ursula Le Guin, Natalie Babbitt, Lloyd Alexander, Richard Peck, Katherine Paterson, Madeleine L’Engle, E.B. White, Kate DiCamillo, and a few other fine, unique writerly souls our nation has produced, Konigsburg’s work spoke to childhood fascinations and concerns, both subtle and plain, with a rare wit and a surprisingly supple creative genius.

Her books have woven a path throughout my life, as they have for so many readers. My first Konigsburg was Jennifer, Hecate, Macbeth, William McKinley, and Me, Elizabeth, and I read it several times, a little prickled/haunted by the shifting friendship dynamic in the book and the mysteriousness of Jennifer’s witchiness. It was a book unlike any I had read, and I loved it. From the Mixed-Up Files was next, and it knocked my ever-living socks off. I was a kid growing up in Arizona at the time, far, far away from the Metropolitan Museum, and yet I was Claudia. At some point later on, I discovered the beautiful (and less well known than it should be) The Second Mrs. Giaconda, a gentle speculation about the model for the Mona Lisa. I loved Konigsburg’s more obscure books, too; George and Up from Jericho Tel, and Father’s Arcane Daughter. I loved that she wrote about Jewish kids and families, something that was almost unheard of in books when I was growing up. As a school librarian, I taught a little medieval history to sixth graders through the fabulous A Proud Taste for Scarlet and Miniver, and The View from Saturday¬†still recalls our first year of bookselling at The Flying Pig; Ms. Konigsburg helped connect us to many a child (and teacher) that year. I can’t think of a five-year span in my life where I wasn’t moved or inspired by at least one of her books. She has wowed me for forty years; there aren’t many authors with that kind of longevity and a perpetually high bar, a quality that never wavers.

If you’re a fan, try to get your hands on a copy of TalkTalk: A Children’s Book Author Speaks to Grown-Ups (Atheneum, currently OP, I think). It’s a collection of nine brilliant, articulate speeches Konigsburg gave over the course of nearly four decades of writing. Her breadth of knowledge is so evident here; she was a wondrous light in children’s literature.

Somewhere in my own mixed-up files is a handwritten letter from Ms. Konigsburg in response to one I wrote her back in the early 1990s. I had intended to write to her for many years, but what finally spurred me to pick up my pen was not a literary epiphany, but the fact that Jell-O had finally created a flavor (I think it was cranberry) that one of her characters thought up in one of her books. I thought she might like to know, before I proceeded with the fan content about her writing in my letter, that she was also a crackerjack food innovator.

So many people and publications have written tributes about Elaine Konigsburg this week. For more personal anecdotes, my friend and colleague Sharon Levin posted a charming memory in her brand-new blog called Life, Literature, Laughter about E.L. Konigsburg’s kindness to her as a child. And the Horn Book posted this article, which also links to thoughts from Roger Sutton. Publishers Weekly’s informative obituary is here, Rocco Staino’s School Library Journal tribute is here, and the New York Times’ obituary is here.

I am sad that she is gone, and grateful that she left behind so much richness. To celebrate E.L. Konigsburg’s life, I am going to re-read at least one of her books this week. If anyone else is doing the same, which will you revisit, or set out to discover for the first time?