Esteemed children’s author E.L. Konigsburg, a two-time winner of the Newbery Medal (From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, in 1968; The View from Saturday, in 1997) and the only writer to have received both the Newbery Medal and a Newbery Honor in the same year, died on Friday, April 19 after a stroke, at age 83.
Konigsburg was born Elaine Lobl in New York City, the middle of three daughters. She grew up in various small mill towns in western Pennsylvania including Farrell, where she graduated at the top of her high school class. Konigsburg bucked the trends for women of that time and pursued her studies in chemistry at Carnegie Institute of Technology in Pittsburgh (now Carnegie Mellon University). Upon receiving her B.S., she married David Konigsburg and continued in the chemistry field as a graduate student at the University of Pittsburgh, where David Konigsburg was studying in the psychology department. When a job opportunity for her husband landed the couple in Jacksonville, Fla., Konigsburg worked as a science teacher at a private girls’ school. But her science and teaching careers were put on hold as she became full-time mother to her three children, born between 1955 and 1959.
Another move brought the family to Port Chester, N.Y., in 1962 It was at this time, as her children began school, that Konigsburg was inspired to follow a more creative path, indulging a burgeoning interest in painting and writing, rekindled from a childhood passion for both. As she stated in many interviews, including a 1998 piece in Reading Teacher, a desire to “write something that reflected my own children’s growing up” rather than the privileged lives of many characters in books she had read, was the spark for many of her works, which is definitely the case for her first two novels, Jennifer, Hecate, Macbeth, William McKinley, and Me, Elizabeth (1967) and From the Mixed-Up Files of Basil E. Frankweiler (1967), for which she also provided illustrations.
Konigsburg shared her reasons for choosing to use the moniker E.L. instead of “Elaine” Konigsburg with biographer Leonard S. Marcus in his 2000 book Talking with Authors. “When I began writing in the mid-1960s,” she said, “I thought it was not important for readers to know whether I was male or female. Also, I was a great admirer of E.B. White, so I may have thought that it would bring me luck to submit my first manuscript as “E.L.” But if I were starting out today, I would use my first name.”
Though Mixed-Up Files is perhaps her most widely known book, Konigsburg wrote more than 20 titles for children, including other contemporary works, novels about such historical figures as Eleanor of Aquitaine and Leonardo da Vinci, and several picture books. Many of her protagonists are 12 years old, a choice she explained to Marcus: “Because it is at that age that the serious question of childhood is asking for an answer. Kids want acceptance from their peers, but in two different, opposing ways: They want to be like everyone else and they want to be different from everyone else. So the question is: How do you reconcile these opposing longings?”
Her most recent book was The Mysterious Edge of the Heroic World (Atheneum, 2007).
Fellow author Judith Viorst shared with PW this remembrance of her dear friend: “E.L. Konigsburg was a transformative figure in children's literature—one of the world’s all-time greats. Elaine Konigsburg was a beautiful person, inside and out, a loving wife, mother, grandmother, great-grandmother, girlfriend, and (though she would surely disapprove of my overuse of adjectives) brilliant, funny, warm, perceptive, playful, curious, passionate, life-embracing, and absolutely delicious to hang out with.”