E.L. Konigsburg passed away last month. Maybe you already knew that. Maybe you’ve no idea what I’m talking about. I hope the name sparks something in you. I hope you’ll keep reading anyway.
E.L. Konigsburg wrote children’s books, two of which have won the Newbery Medal and another the Newbery Honor (she lost to herself that year), and three that are among my top ten favorites of all time, the first books I recommend when any parent or child is asking. In short, she’s good. She’s the author I want to be — and the one I pretend to be, when by myself on long car rides where sometimes (I don’t know, it just happens, you can judge me, really I know) I talk out loud, pretending to be an expert on the writing process so that I can better understand it myself. But I didn’t even know she was gone until I came home to an email from a blog reader. She wrote,
I follow your blog and remembered that you once mentioned your admiration of the author E.L. Konigsburg, whom I also love. I am an aspiring writer of children’s stories, a young mother, and I’ve claimed E.L. Konigsburg as more than a muse through my process, so much so that I was about to write her a letter, like today. And to my surprise, I found out she passed away about a week ago. But I’m related to no one, nor friends with anyone who would understand the great loss I feel at her death. So, you popped into my head and I didn’t know if you knew or if you will think this is weird but sometimes you just need someone who gets it, you know? I feel there should be headlines and national readings of her work but, alas, an extraordinary storyteller has died, and I feel it is the saddest secret.
I read Mallory’s email as the sun set against the remnants of a day-long storm. Outside the sky was still thick with bruisy black clouds and the light only managed to cut under them horizontally in great dense discs of orange-gold, making for that lovely strength of light that throws everything into severe relief softened by the late hour. None of which is relevant except to say that I read Mallory’s email and then stared out the window for a very long time afterwards.
E.L. Konigsburg passed away last month, and I hadn’t heard a thing. I started researching, wanting to know more, demanding the world provide it. I didn’t find much — The New York Times ran an obituary, Publisher’s Weekly paid their dues, there are a handful of blog posts marking the date and the Tumblr tag is full of loyal reblogs in her name — and what I did find wasn’t the substance I wanted, or maybe just not the substance I thought necessary to reflect an author as substantial as E.L. Konigsburg. Because that’s what it always was, wasn’t it? Real, solid, straight stuff. Even in the most outrageous situations. What I love about her writing is its unflinching directness while maintaining an essential innocence, that so many of her plot lines involve hard things, tricky things, real things that in this world you need to understand—but she does not bludgeon you bloody with them the way so many other books do, hitting you upside the head and right in the stomach in their determination to prove to you that they are a Very Important Book Dealing with Very Important Things. No. With Konigsburg you follow them quietly, carefully, in a spirit of observation and deduction so that in the end you have begun to interpret them in your own right; not feeling victimized, but free. She is the paragon of what I in my mind have always deemed “intelligent fiction,” stories that triumph passion for the world around you down to the deepest details, with a reverence for what we have been given and what more we have to give in engaging with it and making it our own. Stories that reiterate the joy of living, that, like Monica Hesse wrote in a nearly perfect paragraph for the Washington Post, “knowledge is worth possessing, even when it’s not publicized, even when it’s not Tweeted. It carries its own inherent worth.”
For me, Konigsburg has always been a refuge. I could recount for you any number of afternoons I have fled to the library and straightaway to the Juvenile stacks, K shelf, and I’m not just remembering my elementary school years. My very last semester of University I returned nearly desperately to The View from Saturday because I knew it would never disappoint me even when I so often found some “higher” texts of the newer literature always did. And that idea, this idea that I could read about Mrs. Olinski and The Souls on their way to Academic Bowl stardom as a sixth grader feeling like I’d discovered the secrets to all words and here, thirteen years later, not only find its magic steady but thirteen times stronger?
Mallory was right. There should be headlines and national readings. There should be library memorials and book club revivals. But there aren’t.
So between the two of us we endeavored to come up with an offering of our own, which is why starting now until however long it takes us we will be remembering one new Konigsburg book per month, trading small essays in tribute to her bibliography under the banner of The Konigsburg Collective. A book club of sorts, I suppose you could say, though there’s no pressure to follow along exactly or even at all. Maybe it’s just an excuse for us to read them all over again. Maybe it’s an excuse for you to read them for the first time. At any rate . . . one book, once a month . . . can’t hurt. And I promise we’ll all be the better for it.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Want to get a head start? The Konigsburg Collective sets off where so many of us first began — Mallory will be back this month with The Mixed of Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler.