Monday, March 3, 2008

E. L. Konigsburg

From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler
by E. L. Konigsburg
Recommended Age: 10+

This 1968 Newbery Medal winner has been made into several movies, and at least one of them (the one featuring Ingrid Bergman in the title role) was pretty well-known in my generation. I think so, anyway. It wasn't until just lately that I read the book, which tells an intriguing, charming, and somewhat sad story.

Claudia and Jamie have run away from home. Unlike many runaways, they didn't attempt their escape until they had a good idea of where they were going and how they were going to get there. Where? The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. How? By hiding in the bathrooms until the place is locked up at night, then sleeping in the beds in the historical displays, and digging coins out of the fountain to pay for their needs.

Though they are not always quite comfortable, and are sometimes very homesick, the pair gets along pretty well until Claudia becomes obsessed with the mystery of a sculpture, supposedly by Michelangelo, which has just been donated to the museum. Is the sculpture genuine? Only the donor, Mrs. Basel E. Frankweiler, knows. And she isn't telling!

Harry Potter fans may enjoy this story. I think it has a similar appeal - the universal appeal, to younger readers, of the fantasy of escaping from your lousy family and your mundane life. Claudia and Jamie do it without magic, or at least, with a different kind of magic. Try it out!

Silent to the Bone
by E. L. Konigsburg
Recommended Age: 13+

This young-readers’ mystery by a two-time Newbery Medal winner is full of the qualities that make for a Newbery book. It is educational but at the same time suspenseful, emotionally intense and rich in characterization.

13-year-old best friends Branwell and Connor talk to each other about everything; but when a pretty young English au pair arrives to take care of Branwell’s infant half-sister, something changes in their friendship. Connor notices Branwell becoming more silent and distant. Six weeks later the child, Nikki, is seriously hurt and left in a coma. The au pair blames Branwell. He has nothing to say for himself. In fact, since the accident, he either cannot or will not say a word to anybody. As little Nikki struggles for life, it looks as if Bran may take the blame for hurting her.

Only his best friend, Connor, doesn’t believe he did any such thing. And Connor goes to see Branwell every day, working to break down the wall of silence that keeps him from telling what really happened the day Nikki was hurt. Aided by his own half-sister, Margaret, and what little communication he is able to establish with his speechless friend, Connor carries on his own investigation. And what he finds may prove either the severest test or the greatest proof of his friendship with Bran.

There are complex people in this book - some of them are a bit sinister, others rather pitiful - but Connor is a sympathetic narrator. You sympathize with him even when he is not behaving particularly well; and through him, you learn to sympathize even with some twisted and broken people. I am touched by his loyalty to Bran and deeply moved by the dilemma in which Bran finds himself. It saddens me to think how many families, how many lives, have been destroyed because someone was too ashamed to speak. The question “Could that happen to us?” and the question “Will that happen to Bran and his family?” will keep you turning the pages, more and more eagerly, up to the story’s perfect ending.

The View from Saturday
by E. L. Konigsburg
Recommended Age: 12+

Ms. Konigsburg has said that this small novel originated in a handful of unfinished short stories. The real stroke of inspiration was when she realized what all of those stories had in common and shaped them into one coherent whole. The outline of some of the stories can still be seen in the description of the journeys each of four children took on their way to becoming a team, or club, known as the Souls. But the way all their journeys merge into one moving and uplifting journey is what makes this book very special.

The Souls are four sixth-graders in the upstate New York town of Epiphany (whose name is as meaningful as the Gramercy Road that figures in it). Three of them - Noah, Nadia, and Ethan - are connected through relations in Florida, though they are not special friends until a strange boy from India, named Julian, invites them to a tea party. It seems clear from the start that something special is in store for the Souls. And we know, from the way the plot threads are paid out, that it will be something to do with a state-championship Academic Bowl team, coached by their paraplegic teacher, Mrs. Olinski.

I’m going to clam up now. There’s a lot more I’d like to say about this book, but I hope I’ve whetted your appetite already - I don’t want to spoil your tea. I can tell you this, however: every year since 1922, the Children’s Librarians Section of the American Library Association has awarded a Newbery Medal to one author for extraordinary achievement in children’s literature. One author a year is not many. Not surprisingly, very few authors have received this honor twice; E. L. Konigsburg is one of them. From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler won in 1968, and this book in 1997. That alone should be an honor worth cherishing; but I would be very proud, and I hope anyone would be, simply to have written something as good as The View from Saturday.

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