One of my favorite authors died over the weekend, E.L. Konigsburg. She was 83 years old. The news gave me pause – caught my breath up, actually. And, when I saw a FB from a writer friend who admitted that she’d shed a tear over the famous author’s passing, I felt a rush of camaraderie. Sure, it’s a strong statement about a book read too many years ago to count, but I would tell you today that From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E Frankweiler was the seminal book of my childhood. It came after Laura Ingalls Wilder and before Nancy Drew – if that helps you set it into a literary chronology of childhood — but the details of this single story stayed with me. Why? The story contained a mood, and images, that I retained all throughout my life … and I was more excited about introducing it to my children than perhaps any other book. (Which is saying something considering all the hours I spent reading to my kids). It even figured in the creation of my first website, Kids Off the Couch.
So what is it about the story? (And, I say story because in all these years, I wasn’t particularly inspired to read any other titles by Konigsburg). All the books I loved had female leads (see above) so the gender of Konigsburg’s lead, Claudia Kinkaid, was not the point. It was set in NYC, which was exotic and wild to me, growing up on the South Shore of Boston, but it wasn’t just that. Claudia was Intrepid. Fearless. And, most of all, Curious. She and her brother ran away from home when things got annoying and hid at the Met for days, sleeping in exhibition beds, bathing in fountains and hiding from the guards before closing by standing on top of the toilets during a bathroom sweep. It may be this particular, kid-centric detail that stuck with me — for, I often think of them tip toeing on the porcelain toilet rims and eluding the museum security guard.
More than anything, Claudia was Confident in her own intelligence. Like Harriet the Spy (who I liked a lot less), she got an idea in her head and followed it to its logical conclusion, ignoring the conventions of the world of adults and finding respect and answers from a cranky, mysterious older woman — she of the title — who answered her questions and set her back on her way home.
So, the book served as important talisman for the creation of Kids Off the Couch. When my writing partner and I dreamed up the website, our very first adventure was to read this book with our fourth-grade daughters and unleash them at The Getty Center to plan a pretend sleepover hideaway at the museum. It was a magical experience, because the girls loved the book as much as the moms, and because the idea of looking at the Getty as a place to hideaway was really exciting to the kids. Whenever we met anyone along our travels with that four year project, we’d test them to see if they knew the book. Anyone that did was a friend for life. And we never really trusted the ones who hadn’t read the book.
E.L. Konigsbug, quoted on NPR over the weekend, explained why her main characters tend to be 12-year-olds. She explained, “Because it is at that age that the serious question of childhood is asking for an answer. Kids want to be like everyone else. and they want to be different from everyone else. So the question is, how do you reconcile these opposing longings?”
Now, that’s a question I’m still trying to figure out.