I’ve spent the last two weeks reading as much E.L. Konigsburg as my local library shelf provided. Even before the sad event of her passing on April 19, I was well through my fourth reading of all time of her Newberry Award-winner, From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. I was trying to determine if my third reading of all time (about three years ago, out loud to my daughter), in which I found myself vaguely disappointed by the story, was really a case of not-in-the-mood, or let-down due to Ada’s apparent lack of enthusiasm, or just of a once-beloved book—through no fault of its own—not being able to live up to the adoration in which it was once held. In short, I wanted to know if I plain didn’t like the book anymore. And more broadly, I was also considering the question of whether certain books seem out-of-date after a generation or two. Also in the back of my mind was The Wind in the Willows, my absolute favorite book of childhood, the one that made me want to be a writer in the first grade and which I plagiarized heavily for a story I scribbled in the notebook my mother bought me for my first day of school. When I tried to re-read it in adulthood, it seemed so dry and slow I could barely find my way out of the first chapter.
My 4th grade teacher read From the Mixed Up Files…out loud to us, way back in 1976. I was completely, unutterably entranced. So much so that when she finished the read-aloud, I asked her if I could borrow the book, so I could read it again at home. “What do you want to read it again for?” She asked. “We just finished it!” I wanted to read it again, of course, because I wanted to savor it all on my own, without having to listen to the tittering and commenting and breathing of my classmates—the scenes of planning and organizing to run away; the scenes of choosing where to sleep in the Metropolitan Museum, and those in which Claudia and Jamie have free run of it afterhours. In retrospect, it’s obvious why I loved these as much as I did. I grew up a few blocks away from the Met and my parents and I spent every Sunday afternoon there, wandering the Egyptian wing, and the Arms and Armor, and those rooms full of furniture. The book was like my own private fantasy written into life.
After my fourth read-through, I still wasn’t sure what I thought. Except for this: kids don’t really talk like that anymore. And also this: the story requires patience, which contemporary kids aren’t asked to dredge up very often when they read these days—they are thrown right into the action of a story, right off the bat. I had never read another book by E.L. Konigburg, so I checked out Jennifer, Hecate, Macbeth, William McKinley, and Me, Elizabeth, her first novel; The Mysterious Edge of the Heroic World; The Outcasts of 19 Schuyler Place; and Konigsburg’s second Newberry winner, The View from Saturday.
These books span four decades. And still, after reading them, I thought, kids don’t really talk that way anymore, and also, these stories require patience. And I also thought: these two observations are irrelevant. Because what was obvious on considering these five books all together were Konigsburg’s real talents. She had a true and deep understanding of the emotional complexity of relationships—the kind and savage ways we treat each other, and the place where those disparate sides of ourselves meet. And she was a master of the chaotic coincidence—the narrator who turns out to mean much more than the reader (or the protagonists) bargained for; an incidental, never-introduced character who holds the key to a grand mystery; four teenagers whose friendship hinges on a seemingly random wedding in Florida.
To enjoy the results of these talents, it is worthwhile to overlook quirks in dialog, and also to have patience. And as a parent, and a late-arriving fan of some of these books, perhaps I should have patience, too. Ada may not have been ready for From the Mixed Up Files… as a six year old; and she might not be ready for it now, as a 4th grader; but perhaps one of these years she will discover this book and the others all on her own, and find them just right for the moment.