It could not have been a more fitting venue: on February 21, family, friends, and colleagues of E.L. Konigsburg gathered in a private space at the Metropolitan Museum of Art to pay tribute to the Newbery Medal-winning author, who died on April 19 at age 83. Three guest speakers – Ginee Seo, Konigsburg’s former editor at Atheneum; Justin Chanda, v-p and publisher at Atheneum; and Paul Konigsburg, the author’s son – reminisced about her storytelling, her love of art, and her joie de vivre.
Chanda shared his first impressions of reading From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler when he was a child, calling it a book about “family” and “the deliciousness of secrets.” He noted how he developed a highly personal kinship with the novel: “It changed something in me and made me look at books in a different way,” he said.
Seo spoke about the author’s diligence and devotion to her writing, from the tiny details to the big picture. “She was an enemy of cliché. Precision with regard to language was part of who she was.... She made you notice what you might have skimmed over,” Seo said, emphasizing how Konigsburg’s books truly had the capacity to change a reader. “You can’t think of a museum in the same way after reading From the Mixed-Up Files, or silence after reading Silent to the Bone.” Seo also shared some of Konigsburg’s lesser-known personal qualities that contributed to her individuality. Few, she said, know of her impeccable taste in accessories, her abundant, and sometimes earthy, sense of humor, or how she relished the spotlight. “She was not falsely modest. Let’s face it: she was a rock star and she did enjoy it,” Seo said. Above all, it was Konigsburg’s relentless drive to achieve a higher art that most impressed Seo. “She was always working, noticing, and looking at life in different ways,” Seo said. “She never disappointed.”.
Welcoming his mother’s “family” and “publishing family” to the event, Paul Konigsburg spoke about his mother’s “long, varied connection with the museum,” which began years before fictional siblings Claudia and Jamie Kincaid ran away to live there. During the mid-1960s, Konigsburg’s mother would drop off Paul and his siblings, Laurie and Ross, at the museum, while she attended her own art classes. By the time the children made their routine visits to the knights in armor, the mummy, and the Impressionists (at Laurie’s request), Konigsburg’s class would be finished and she would return to explore the museum with them.
On one such occasion, Paul recalled, his mother spotted a single piece of popcorn on the floor next to an ornate piece of royal furniture, which was completely blocked off from public access. He remembers his mother wondering aloud, where did that popcorn come from? And it was that moment, “burned into shrapnel memory,” that he believes formed the kernel of the story that would become From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. She was “a very special lady,” he said, whose passion for art drew her to this “very special place.”