Profile of E. L. Konigsburg by Laurie Konigsburg Todd

Readers frequently ask where E. L. Konigsburg, my mother, gets her ideas. I’ll tell.

Although Mom can detect the most subtle nuance in painting or prose, she never developed a musical ear. Knowing that, my brother Paul purchased several classical records and proceeded to give her a course in music appreciation. It is not surprising that Mom’s interpretation of music took on a literary dimension. After hearing the first movement of Mozart’s Symphony #40 in G Minor, she knew she would one day use it as a model for a book. Like that movement, her book would have a short opening, a recurrent theme, and a melody that was separate yet intertwined, repeated and extended. The result was The View from Saturday.

Discord, not harmony, motivated Mom to conceive From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. As she listened to Paul, Ross, and me complain about insects and heat during a family picnic, she concluded that her suburban children would never run away from home by opting for a wilderness adventure. Instead, we would seek the comfort and splendor of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Although the inspiration for these Newbery books was as disparate as the three decades which separate their publication, their theme is the same. In fact, every one of E. L. Konigsburg’s fourteen novels are about children who seek, find, and ultimately enjoy who they are. Despite this common denominator, E. L. Konigsburg’s writing is the antithesis of the formula book. Her characters are one-of-a-kind. They include Jamie Kincaid, who likes complications and cheats at cards; Ned Hixon, who turns the finding of fossilized sharks teeth into a competition as fierce as Wimbledon; and Chloë Pollack, who learns to put bad hair days and other people’s opinions into perspective.

Mom always lets her characters speak for themselves. At the same time, she persists in having them speak to the core of her readers. Thirty years has not changed the fundamental identity of Mom’s audience–middle-aged children who crave acceptance by their peers as desperately as they yearn to be appreciated for their differences. E. L. Konigsburg’s success can be attributed to the fact that when children read any of her novels, they see themselves, and they laugh.

Since readers recognize themselves in E. L. Konigsburg’s books, they frequently ask how she discovered her own identity as an author. The answer is that her writing career began when she was a graduate student in chemistry.

Both science and art demand discipline and imagination. The laboratory protocol that compelled Mom to log and monitor experiments developed into the self-control she exercises when she forces herself to sit at her desk and write. Conjecturing how molecules fit together during chemical reactions became training for creating character and plot. Indeed, chemistry showed that transcending intellectual boundaries is prerequisite to true discovery. How else did a former student of architecture, Friedrich Kekulé, dream that a snake was biting its own tail, and so discover the ringed structure of benzene?

Today, there is less recognition that skills can be transferred from one discipline to another. The current crop of help-wanted ads demand specialized degrees and mastery of specific computer programs. They don’t mention imagination. It’s a good thing E. L. Konigsburg has found success as an author, because she’s out of sync with today’s narrowly defined careers. She has a terrific sense of design, but what firm would hire a graphic artist who’s never heard of CorelDRAW and has trouble double-clicking a mouse? Mom would also have difficulty as an administrative assistant. She’d comply with requests to organize office records, but nobody else would be able to retrieve them. The process her brain goes through to store and retrieve information is as mixed-up as Mrs. Frankweiler’s files (and uncovers as much treasure).

So the entire Konigsburg family is grateful, truly grateful, that readers and the Newbery Committee admire and recognize E. L. Konigsburg’s talent. By coincidence, my family and I arrived to visit my parents the very day they learned that she had won the 1997 Newbery Medal. She had only five minutes to spend with us before she left to be on the “Today” show in New York. We spent those moments jumping for joy.

While Mom was in Manhattan, Dad answered dozens of phone calls, and the condominium filled with floral arrangements. I was moved by how proud Dad was of her. For forty-five years, he has been her sounding board, and throughout her career, he has been her business adviser. I was also touched by how many well-wishers were friends who had helped our family celebrate the 1968 Newbery. Now, some of their children called with congratulations.

Mom came home, exhilarated from her trip. Soon, she was returning phone calls and writing thank-you notes. She had already returned to being wife, mother, and grandmother. After learning that my thirteen-year-old son was wearing a stocking cap to prevent his hair from curling, Elaine Konigsburg took her grandson to a hair salon and bought him styling mousse. That evening, she heated up the brisket she had made to celebrate our visit. We enjoyed our meal, and I thought about how receiving a second Newbery has made Mom’s life come full spiral. After twenty-nine years, that’s better than full circle.

Laurie Konigsburg Todd, her husband Robert, and son Sam operate a five-hundred-acre farm in upstate New York.  From the July/August 1997 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

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