I was sorry to read yesterday of the death of children’s and young adult author E.L. (short for Elaine Lobl ) Konigsburg. She’s best remembered for her 1967 novel—one of two published that year—From The Mixed Up Files Of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, about siblings who run away to live in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, memorably bathing in the fountain at the cafe, sleeping in an antique bed, and treating themselves to lunch at the Automat, a kind of restaurant I dreamed of eating at for years afterwards. But as much as the running away details of Mixed Up Files are memorable, much of what I love about both it and A Proud Taste For Scarlet and Miniver, Konigsburg’s less-read book about the life of Eleanor of Aquitaine, is the way both books gave girls and young women credit for intellectual curiosity, and trusted them to handle big emotions and ideas, like whether or not it matters that a piece of art is by Michaelangelo, or what it means to build a good marriage.
Claudia, the main character of Mixed Up Files, first earns our respect for the gift of logistics she applies to running away. She lifts train tickets, picks her younger brother as a runaway companion because he has managed to stash away a reasonable supply of travel money, and figures out a way to make sure the two of them don’t get caught by Met security guards (this is all in an age before pressure sensors and electric alarms). But what ultimately makes her admirable, and what wins her the respect of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, a wealthy art collector, is much more ephemeral. During Claudia’s time living in the museum, an overpoweringly beautiful statue of an angel goes on display, and becomes a phenomenon. Part of the curiosity is inspired by the fact that it’s not entirely clear whether the statue was produced by Michaelangelo. But Claudia becomes obsessed by the question, and she and her brother track down Mrs. Frankweiler in search of answers.
Once they do, the older delivers one of the most valuable lessons on education anyone could give to children. “I think you should learn, of course,” she tells Claudia, who doesn’t want to go back to school, feeling that her experience on her own has been more valuable than any education. “And some days you must learn a great deal. But you should also have days when you allow what is already in you to swell up inside of you until it touches everything. And you can feel it inside of you. If you never take time out to let that happen, then you just accumulate facts, and they begin to rattle around inside of you. You can make noise with them, but never really feel anything with them. It’s hollow.”
Claudia’s adventure, in other words, isn’t about breaking her free from her school and family and friends. It’s about learning what you do with a grade-school education, with intellectual curiosity, and with the drive to make a life for yourself that’s full of beauty and experience. She learns that she can stay hidden from museum guards, but also that she can see important things, and make herself seen by the people, like the wealthy and powerful Mrs. Frankweiler, she needs to listen to her. But Claudia also learns that there’s no point in having insights if you don’t have someone to share them with, or in seeing yourself as special if you hide yourself away rather than engaging with people, even if those people are your parents. It’s a story about finding your place within society, rather than expecting that there’s something better out there if you run away to find it.
Similarly, A Proud Taste For Scarlet And Miniver is as much a subversion of fantasy conventions as Game of Thrones is, but with its lessons drawn straight from history, and aimed straight at a young adult audience. Told from multiple perspectives from heaven—a place that smart, interesting people have a tendency to need to earn their way into, and which involves hilarious culture clashes depending on when people get there—Eleanor’s life gets examined toughly, but compassionately, by everyone from her mother-in-law to the knight who protected her for years. Eleanor is revealed to be woman who loved the gaiety of court life and drove her first husband to a massacre, then proved unable to live with him after he became extremely pious in repentance, and who found initial happiness with her second husband, only to become alienated from him when she gets involved in the question of how to manage their sons together, and to see many of them die in ugly ways, often related to the battles they sought out as established ways to prove themselves heroic, worthy men.
Konigsburg trusts readers who might have showed up expecting a princess story to stay through an antihero tale. And she trusts children to handle ugly details like arrow wounds and burned-out cities that weren’t just an accidental byproduct of chivalric culture, but integral to it. Eleanor emerges as a smart, restless woman—somewhat like Claudia, in fact, particularly given her taste for beauty—who has to take moral responsibility for the damage she caused in life, but still is tremendously likable.
In a way, Konigsburg’s writing illustrates the tragedy of young adult fiction, particularly for girls. When you’re young, female characters get to be enormously complex, and are given a tremendous amount of agency—sometimes, they’re responsible for the fate of their entire societies or worlds. But as they age, women get diminished roles in almost all genres except romantic comedies, reduced to sidekicks for superheroes or wives who get in the way of antiheroes’ fun. We already have Claudia’s counterparts on film and television in girls like Sally Draper, Hermione Granger and Arya Stark. What we need more of is fully realized adult women with their own agendas like Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, more restlessly energetic Eleanors.