Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Happy Birthday, Mrs. Konigsburg!

I was working yesterday on a post called "Penny Dreams, Quarter Wishes," a topic I have been kicking around in my head since early January. Part of that title comes from a scene in a juvenile novel, From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, by E. L. Konigsburg.

The novel take place almost entirely in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in which Claudia and Jamie, a sister and brother, are hiding after running away from their suburban home. They are bathing in the Museum's restaurant fountain one night when they discover that there are coins on the bottom of the fountain pool:

The bumps were pennies and nickels people had pitched into the fountain to make a wish. At least four people had thrown in dimes and one had tossed in a quarter.
"Someone very rich must have tossed in this quarter," Jamie whispered.
"Someone very poor," Claudia corrected. "Rich people have only penny wishes."

As I reread the above passage, I remembered that From the Mixed-Up Files, which was the 1968 Newberry Award winning book, was only Konigsburg's second novel and that her first had also garnered considerable attention. A little online research confirmed that Konigsburg not only won the Newberry Medal for From the Mixed-Up Files, but also won a Newberry Honor the same year for her first novel. She is the only author to win both the Newberry Medal and a Newberry Honor in the same year.

In the course of my Googling, I learned that today, February 10, is E. L . Konigsburg's birthday.

How could I not write about that?

29 years after her first Newberry Award, Konigsburg won a second for The View from Saturday. View is about four young students, "the Souls," who are chosen by their paraplegic teacher to be a middle school Academic Bowl team. All of them, students and teacher alike, learn about friendship and overcoming challenges in the course of a championship season. The book contains one of my (many) favorite passages in literature wherein the students, who come together for high tea every Saturday, share what day they would like to live over. Ethan recounts:

The Souls listened and were not embarrassed to hear, and I was not embarrassed to say, "I would like to live over the day of our first tea party. And, look," I added, "every Saturday since, I get to do just that."

Learning to read was a life changing event for me, as I imagine it is for many. I still remember the moment, several pages into the first grade reader, when I made the instantaneous and permanent connection between the print on the page and the words we speak. It was a lightning strike, a "Miracle Worker" moment, and it unleashed in me a passion for reading and books that has never been quenched.

By the time I was in second grade, I not only wanted to read books, but I also wanted to write them. I wanted to be a part of the magic of getting the ideas in my head on paper and in between two covers so that I could hold them in my hands. I wasn't that sure, back in 1963, whether girls could even be writers, but eventually I had the answer I sought.

With the guidance of Mrs. Judd, who presided over the children's section of the library in those days, I discovered a whole universe of women who wrote for young readers. Louisa May Alcott, Laura Ingalls Wilder, Beverly Cleary, Carol Ryrie Brink, Sydney Taylor, Rumer Godden, Eleanor Estes, Noel Streatfeild, Maud Hart Lovelace, E. L. Konigsburg, Lenora Mattingly Weber, Mary Stolz. (Somehow I missed out on Madeleine L'Engle until I began reading her works to my son Ben, but had I stumbled across her in my youth, she too would have entered my pantheon of favorites.) In looking back, I suspect Mrs. Judd deliberately guided me towards the women writers, somehow intuiting that I needed to know that women could write too.

Learning that women could be authors opened a door to the future for me. That realization - and their wonderful, incredible books - opened me to other possibilities for my life. In my family, the only career path was that of wife and mother. But now I knew something more: I could be a writer when I grew up.

E. L Konigsburg is 80 today. 80! When she was in her forties and writing From the Mixed-Up Files, she had Mrs. Frankweiler tell Claudia, "When one is eighty-two, one doesn't have to learn one new thing every day, and one knows that some things are impossible." By the time Konigsburg was in her seventies and wrote The View from Saturday, she populated several chapters with lively seniors undertaking new activities, celebrating a late life marriage, and wearing turquoise jogging suits. Apparently Konigsburg found the view from her seventies to be different from the view from her forties.

Birthdays are a time for gifts, and in this case, the gifts are all from the Birthday Girl. Thank you for your gifts to us: for Claudia and Jamie, for the Souls, for your willingness to spin tales time and time again for us to read over and over. Thank you, you and your other women colleagues in literature, for opening a door for me so many years ago.

Happy birthday, Mrs. Konigsburg!


I am the working poor. said...

Thanks for this. I thought I remembered reading From the Mixed Up Files. I remember it now.

Happy Birthday, Mrs. Konigsburg!

Pat said...

New to your blog, though you gave me the link some time ago, I have been scanning the entries with relish. What took me to the high heel shoe/Barbie entry? Was it because it seemed so unlike you? As a farm girl in Missouri, in a 4-room school of eight grades, at age 12 I too kept a calendar of what outfit I wore each day. Since my very limited wardrobe (mostly homemade by me except for the precious sweatshirts and pleated wool skirts) could only be spread so thin, I had to be sure I did not rotate any outfit too often. The importance of wardrobe was second only to having enough books to keep me occupied. I recall my mother making no comment as I checked out Karl Marx "Das Kapital" from the St. Joseph library that same year.

Alise Marie said...

The View from Saturday instilled in me a love for tea with lemon slices.

Ashley said...

I received a copy of Mixed Up Files for Christmas 2009. It is every bit as good to read as an adult as it was when I first read it. I too love to read and many of the authors that I lovingly pick up again and again are those that wrote young adult fiction.