When I learned yesterday that my favorite children’s book author, E.L. Konigsburg, had died on April 19 at the age of 83, I looked up at the shelf of her books and realized that, in a way, she had been preparing us, her readers, for this.
Her books were full of old women, and, in the case of Tallulah in Up From Jericho Tel and Eleanor of Aquitaine (yes) in A Proud Taste for Scarlet and Miniver, even ones who were already dead, speaking from an afterlife. But even though Eleanor might have been in heaven, she was no angel, and none of those old ladies were sweet bubbes or mystical crones; they were dark, prickly, funny, whip smart, flawed, complicated, and human.
The most famous of them is Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, of the Newberry Award-winning From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, who frames and narrates the story of Claudia and Jamie Kincaid, a sister and brother ages 12 and 9, who run away from their Connecticut suburb and live in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Toward the end of the novel, Claudia and Jamie wind up at the house of the wealthy and reclusive Frankweiler. She is no one’s grandmother, and she doesn’t soften herself for her young visitors; her tone is dry and she speaks to them directly, without condescension, and cuts them a deal. As in all of Konigsburg’s books, the children and the adults take each other very seriously. (As Tallulah puts it, “Kids are amateur adults.”)
A few of these characters are explicitly Jewish (see About the B’nai Bagels), and many of them are Jewish without really talking about it (see Noah Gershom and Nadia Diamondstein in The View From Saturday), but most of them are Jewish in the Ben Greenman way, because they are outsiders who can’t stop thinking about it. Konigsburg’s books are about them finding and recognizing one another not as victims but as fellow travelers and figuring out how to live in a world that doesn’t always see them. This world is flawed and real and marvelous, full of stories and pictures and secrets and shooting stars and bittersweetly ringed with mortality.