1992’s Amy Elizabeth Explores Bloomingdale’s is still in print. Yay! But also hmm, because the text and illustrations are pretty darn dated. When Amy Elizabeth comes from Houston to visit her grandmother in New York City, the two use subway tokens (RIP) to get to Chinatown, have hot chocolate at Rumpelmayer’s (RIP), and eat a hundred pickled tomatoes at the Carnegie Deli (RIP), The watercolor illustrations look old-fashioned, too. With her punk puffer, heavy bangs and hair bow, Amy Elizabeth looks like an extra on Parker Lewis Can’t Lose (1990-1993).
And yet. Amy Elizabeth Explores Bloomingdale’s is by Elaine Lobl Konigsburg, the only author ever to win the highest honor in children’s book publishing, the Newbery Medal and the runner-up award, the Newbery Honor, in the same year. (It was 1968, and she won for From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, and came in second to herself with Jennifer, Hecate, Macbeth, William McKinley, and Me, Elizabeth.) Perhaps this is why Amy Elizabeth has stayed in print all this time—and in hardcover, yet. E.L. Konigsburg was a writing powerhouse with a dark sense of humor and a realistic, unsentimental attitude toward the foibles of both children and adults. From the Mixed-Up Files is as thrilling (running away and living alone in a museum! Having adventures! Fishing coins out of fountains to buy food that comes out of drawers in a glorious place called an automat!) to kids today as it was way back when. Konigsburg wrote 21 books—winning the Newbery again in 1997 for The View From Saturday—and contributed small illustrations to many of them.
She only wrote three full-on, full-color picture books. The first two, which came out in 1990 and 1991, starred her first grandson, Samuel Todd, so in 1992, she decided to give her first granddaughter, Amy Elizabeth, her day in the sun.
That said, it’s actually not very sunny in NYC when Amy Elizabeth visits. It’s freezing, and Amy Elizabeth scowls almost the entire time. Because everything is better in Houston. “In Houston, people who have pets don’t have pooper-scoopers because they have lawns.” (Grandma’s dog, Alexander the Great, gives her the side-eye.) In Houston, there are no annoying protest marches. “I explained to Grandma that in Houston when people march and carry signs, there is also a band, and it is a parade.” In Houston, the signs are all in English. “In my town, Chinatown would be another country like China.” And when Grandma makes them take the bus to the Empire State Building, because “no one drives in New York City,” Amy Elizabeth casts a gimlet eye at the traffic and notes acidly, “There were hundreds of cars with hundreds of drivers who didn’t know that no one drives in New York City.”
Amy Elizabeth is a pill, basically. And Grandma is a saint. This is enjoyable for the adult reading the book aloud to a child. Like the more recent Caldecott-Medal-winning Nana in the City, Amy Elizabeth’s Grandma is a bracing antidote to all the passive, soup-making, rocking-chair-dwelling grandmas in entirely too much Jewish kidlit. Young listeners will also be amused by Grandma’s and Amy Elizabeth’s endless failed attempts to get to Bloomingdale’s; there’s always something exciting going on in New York City that stands in the way. “I have had an excellent time not getting there,” Amy Elizabeth tells Grandma at the end, when she’s finally warmed up to the joys of NYC and time spent with Grandma and Alexander the Great.
I love this book, and not only because it’s a portrait of a bygone NYC. It’s hilarious and snarky and deadpan. But not everyone was a fan. In her out-of-print 1995 memoir, Talk, Talk: A Children’s Book Author Speaks to Grown-Ups, Konigsburg recalls a meeting with a young book editor on the West Coast. “This is where right-on-red came from,” Konigsburg drily points out. “This is L.A., the city where the phone is a prosthesis. She asks if we can do a deal. I know she means a book. I tell her I’ve been thinking about a book. This book will be a picture book. My second grandchild will be a character. I have a title: Amy Elizabeth Explores Bloomingdale’s. She expresses enthusiasm. We part, mellowed out on champagne and promise.”
Konigsburg continues, “I submit the manuscript. I do not receive a reply–not even an acknowledgment of receipt–for more than a month. Uh-oh. Experience has taught me that when a response to a requested manuscript is long in coming, the manuscript is in trouble. I was right. What experience had not prepared me for, however, was the source of the problem. In her letter, the editor wrote:
“What confuses me however, is that the title is misleading, and I think the reaction of sales reps and booksellers [italics mine] will be negative rather than positive. The book is about something completely different than the title suggests and I think the reader will ultimately be disappointed. It seems to me that it could be called AMY ELIZABETH TRIES TO EXPLORE BLOOMINGDALE’S or AMY ELIZABETH DOESN’T EXPLORE BLOOMINGDALE’S or perhaps more clever than the above that conveys to the reader that the book will be satisfying even if you don’t get to go to Bloomingdale’s. I also think that reviewers [italics mine] would object to the book disappointing the child.”
Ultimately, Konigsburg and the editor part ways. Her new editor understands the joke and gives her helpful notes. The book debuts to positive-to-rapturous reviews. Konigsburg informs us, “Subsequent to its publication (October 1992) not one reviewer, bookseller, or librarian [italics mine] has objected to the title.” Moral: Do not mess with E.L. Konigsburg.
Nowadays, my children’s NYC bubbe can’t take them to Rumpelmayer’s or the Carnegie Deli. She does take them to Dylan’s Candy Bar and the Second Avenue Deli. The city changes and the city remains the same. Konigsburg died in 2013, but her work lives on.
Marjorie Ingall is a former columnist for Tablet, the author of Mamaleh Knows Best, and a frequent contributor to the New York Times Book Review.