I never thought of it before today but, as a child, my two favorite authors both published under their initials: E.B. White (whose spider’s woven vocabulary lesson inspired this blog’s name) and E.L. Konigsburg, who died on Friday at age 83. I never met the creator of Charlotte, Wilbur, and Stuart, but I did have good fortune to meet Elaine Lobl Konigsburg, in 1967, because her son, Ross, was one of my grade school classmates. Her first two books were published the same year, and she came to our school library for a special reading and book-signing event.
I remember vividly the confusing mix of embarrassment and pride I felt when I was pulled off the afternoon school bus to pose for a photo with Ross and his mother. The bus driver had to wait for a good ten minutes while the photographer fiddled with his flash and repositioned us around a table stacked with books to get the shot just right. I knew, and the other kids waiting on the bus to go home surely suspected, that we had all been delayed because Ross had a crush on me. My embarrassment and confusion were compounded the next day when the photo appeared in the local newspaper, and my mother wondered aloud why the photographer hadn’t directed me to tuck the stray lock of hair behind my ear. There I was, hair astray, pictured with shy, nerdy Ross, when, like every girl in our class, I had fallen hard for Dick Still, whose All-American good looks and athleticism crowned him our golden prince right through our 6th grade graduation. (Forgive me, Ross, if you ever stumble across this post. I’m sure we’ve both come a long way since 3rd grade!)
I still have my autographed copies of Jennifer, Hecate, MacBeth, William McKinley, and Me, Elizabeth and From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, both signed “Elaine Konigsburg,” not E.L., and each making reference to my professed admiration for Jennifer, the charismatic young “witch” in the author’s first book. (In elegant cursive, she inscribed: “For Jan, Thanks for loving Jennifer.” and “For Jan, With hopes that she will take Claudia and Jamie into her heart as she has Jennifer.”) Like insecure Elizabeth, the first novel’s narrator, I loved and admired Jennifer because she dared to be different than the “phony” popular girls at school. I wished I could be a free-spirited iconoclast like Jennifer, but I also hated standing out – which I feared I already did for my high grades, my success in competitive sports, and my prettiness (even if I didn’t brush my hair enough to please my mother). Oh, how I longed to be popular, or at least to have a loyal and adoring best friend like Elizabeth. Instead, I struggled all through my youth to combine being smart and successful with being likeable (are you listening, Sheryl Sandberg?).
But the second book, the one about the sister and brother from Greenwich who run away from home and spend a week “hiding out” in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, is the one that has stayed with me as an adult and a mother. When I first read The Mixed-Up Files as an eight-year-old, I had never visited an art museum or been to Manhattan – or even on a train – but Mrs. Konigsburg’s descriptions of the sibling’s odyssey at the Met captivated me like Jennifer’s pretend-magic spells had captivated Elizabeth. I wanted to sit in Marie Antoinette’s chair, to sleep in the 16th century canopied bed, to bathe in the Met’s restaurant fountain, and to secretly solve an art historical mystery, just like Claudia and Jamie Kincaid. As the youngest in my family, I wanted a little brother I could boss around. Their adventure made me realize it was possible, imperative even, for me to escape my small hometown in Florida and live in New York City, where I could be myself without standing out and explore museums to my heart’s content.
When I finally visited the Met for the first time, as a college student, I went straight to the fountain and tossed in a coin. I don’t remember my wish, but after I graduated one wish did come true: I managed to spend eight years living in Manhattan, most recently on East 82nd Street, just a couple of cross-town blocks over from the Met.
Sadly, the fountain is no longer there, and neither am I, but I visited the Met just last week, and it pleases me no end that my daughter, to whom I read aloud The Mixed-Up Files, is studying art history in college. One day I hope she will read Mrs. Konigsburg’s books to her children, and proudly show them the newspaper clipping of their grandmother with the author – without mentioning my hair, or theirs.
Years after she autographed her books for me, Mrs. Konigsburg and her husband retired to small resort town where I grew up. She was the author of 16 children’s books, two of which were awarded the prestigious Newbery Medal (The Mixed-Up Files, 1968) and (The View from Saturday, 1997). Her obituary in her local newspaper says, “Although she enjoyed meeting new people and seeing new places, she always looked forward to being home in Ponte Vedra Beach. In fine weather, she would walk along the shore and search for shark’s teeth.” After my mother died, in 2009, I wrote about hunting for shark’s teeth with her on the same beach: Toothing with Mimi.
For families and readers who wish to retrace Claudia and Jamie’s steps at the Met, the Museum has thoughtfully provided an illustrated guide to The Mixed-Up Files, published in 2001, that includes a “Message from the Author” describing the real-life incidents that inspired the story.