You see before you today a grateful convert from chemistry. Grateful that I converted and grateful that you have labeled the change successful. The world of chemistry, too, is thankful; it is a neater and safer place since I left. This conversion was not so difficult as some others I have gone through. The transformation from smoker into nonsmoker was far more difficult, and the change from high-school-graduate-me into girl-chemist-me was more revolutionary. My writing is not a conversion, really, but a reversion, a reversion to type. A chemist needs symbols and equations, and a chemist needs test tubes and the exact metric measure. A chemist needs this equipment, but I do not. I can go for maybe even five whole days without thinking about gram molecular weights. But not words. I think about words a lot. I need words. I need written-down, black-on-white, printed words. Let me count the ways.
There was a long newspaper strike the first winter we moved into metropolitan New York. Saturday used to be my day off, and I used that day for taking art lessons in the morning and for exploring Manhattan in the afternoon. Our suburbs were New Jersey suburbs then, and my last piece of walking involved a cross-town journey toward the Port Authority Bus Terminal. On one of those Saturdays, as I was in the heart of the theater district, a volley of teen-age girls came larruping down the street bellowing, “The Rolling Stones! The Rolling Stones!” Up ahead, a small bunch of long-haired boys broke into a run and ducked into an alley, Shubert Alley. The girls pursued, and the Rolling Stones gathered; they pushed their collective hair out of their collective eyes and signed autographs.
I told my family about this small happening when I came home, but that was not enough. The next day I wanted to show them an account of it in the paper. But there was no Sunday paper then. It didn’t get written down. I had seen it happen, and still I missed its not being written down. Even now, I miss its never having been written down. I need to see the words to make more real that which I have experienced. And that is the first way I need words. A quotation from my old world of science explains it: ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny. Each animal in its individual development passes through stages in which it resembles its remote ancestors. I spread words on paper for the same reasons that Cro-Magnon man spread pictures on the walls of caves. I need to see it put down: the Rolling Stones and the squealing girls. Thus, first of all, writing it down adds another dimension to reality and satisfies an atavistic need.
And I need words for a second reason. I need them for the reasons that Jane Austen probably did. She told about the dailiness of living. She presented a picture that only someone both involved with his times and detached from them could present. Just like me. I am involved in the everyday, corn-flakes, worn-out-sneakers way of life of my children; yet I am detached from it by several decades. And I give words to the supermarket shopping and to the laundromat just as Jane Austen gave words to afternoon visiting and worry about drafts from open windows.
Just as she stood in a corridor, sheltered by roof and walls from the larger world of her century, just as she stood there and described what was happening in the cubicles of civilization, I stand in my corridor. My corridor is my generation, a hallway away from the children that I breed and need and write about. I peek into homes sitting on quarter-acre lots and into apartments with two bedrooms and two baths. So I need words for this reason: to make record of a place, suburban America, and a time, early autumn of the twentieth century.
My phylogenetic need, adding another dimension to reality, and my class and order need, making record, are certainly the wind at my back, but a family need is the directed, strong gust that pushes me to my desk. And here I don’t mean family in the taxonomic sense. I mean family that I lived in when I was growing up and family that I live in now.
Read Mary Poppins, and you get a good glimpse of upper-middle-class family life in England a quarter of a century ago, a family that had basis in fact. Besides Mary there were Cook and Robertson Ay, and Ellen to lay the table. The outside of the Banks’ house needed paint. Would such a household exist in a middle-class neighborhood in a Shaker Heights, Ohio, or a Paramus, New Jersey? Hardly. There would be no cook; mother would be subscribing to Gourmet magazine. Robertson Ay’s salary would easily buy the paint, and Mr. Banks would be cleaning the leaves out of his gutters on a Sunday afternoon. No one in the Scarsdales of this country allows the house to get run down. It is not in the order of things to purchase services instead of paint.
Read The Secret Garden, and you find another world that I know about only in words. Here is a family living on a large estate staffed by servants who are devoted to the two generations living there. Here is a father who has no visible source of income. He neither reaps nor sows; he doesn’t even commute. He apparently never heard of permissiveness in raising children. He travels around Europe in search of himself, and no one resents his leaving his family to do it. Families of this kind had a basis in fact, but fact remote from me.
I have such faith in words that when I read about such families as a child, I thought that they were the norm and that the way I lived was subnormal, waiting for normal.
Where were the stories then about growing up in a small mill town where there was no one named Jones in your class? Where were the stories that made having a class full of Radasevitches and Gabellas and Zaharious normal? There were stories about the crowd meeting at the corner drugstore after school. Where were the stories that told about the store owner closing his place from 3:1 5 until 4:00 P.M. because he found that what he gained in sales of Coca-Cola he lost in stolen Hershey Bars? How come that druggist never seemed normal to me? He was supposed to be grumpy but lovable; the stories of my time all said so.
Where are the stories now about fathers who come home from work grouchy? Not mean. Not mad. Just nicely, mildly grouchy. Where are the words that tell about mothers who are just slightly hungover on the morning after New Year’s Eve? Not drunkard mothers. Just headachey ones. Where are the stories that tell about the pushy ladies? Not real social climbers. Just moderately pushy. Where are all the parents who are experts on schools? They are all around me in the suburbs of New Jersey and New York, in Pennsylvania and Florida, too. Where are they in books? Some of them are in my books.
And I put them there for my kids. To excuse myself to my kids. Because I have this foolish faith in words. Because I want to show it happening. Because for some atavistic, artistic, inexplicable reason, I believe that the writing of it makes normal of it.
Some of the words come from another family part of me. From being a mother. From the part of me that urges, “Say something else, too. Describe, sure, describe what life is like in these suburbs. Tell how it is normal to be very comfortable on the outside but very uncomfortable on the inside. Tell how funny it all is. But tell a little something else, too. What can it hurt? Tell a little something else — about how you can be a nonconformist and about how you can be an outsider. And tell how you are entitled to a little privacy. But for goodness’ sake, say all that very softly. Let the telling be like fudge-ripple ice cream. You keep licking vanilla, but every now and then you come to something darker and deeper and with a stronger flavor. Let the something-else words be the chocolate.”
The illustrations probably come from the kindergartener who lives inside, somewhere inside me, who says, “Silly, don’t you know that it is called show and tell? Hold up and show and then tell.” I have to show how Mrs. Frankweiler looks and how Jennifer looks. Besides, I like to draw, and I like to complete things, and doing the illustrations answers these simple needs.
And that is my metamorphosis; I guess it was really that and not a conversion at all. The egg that gives form to the caterpillar and then to the chrysalis was really meant to be a butterfly in the first place. Chemistry was my larval stage, and those nine years at home doing diaper service were my cocoon. And you see standing before you today the moth I was always meant to be. (Well, I hardly qualify as a butterfly.) A moth who lives on words. On January 13, after I had finished doing my Zorba Dance and after I had cried over the phone to Mae Durham and to Jean Karl, after I had said all the I can’t believe it’s and all the Oh, no, not really’s, I turned to my husband and asked a typical-wife question, “Did you ever think fifteen years ago when you married a li’l ole organic chemist from Farrell, Pennsylvania, that you were marrying a future Newbery winner and runner-up?” And my husband answered in typical-David fashion, “No, but I knew it would be a nice day when it happened.” And it was a nice day. It’s been a whole row of wonderful days since it happened. Thank you, Jean Karl, for helping to give Jennifer and Elizabeth and Claudia and Jamie that all important extra dimension, print on paper. Thank you, Mae Durham and all the members of the committee, for deciding that my words were special. And thank you, Mr. Melcher, for the medal that stamps them special. All of you, thank you, for giving me something that allows me to go home like Claudia — different on the inside where it counts.
Given at the meeting of the American Library Association in Kansas City, Missouri, on June 25, 1968. The Newbery Medal “for the most distinguished contribution to American Literature for children” was awarded to Mrs. Konigsburg for From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler (Atheneum). From the August 1968 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.