E.L. Konigsburg, one of the few authors to win the Newbery Medal for outstanding children’s literature twice, and the only one to win both the prize and the runner-up Newbery Honor prize in the same year, died Friday of complications from a stroke at her home in Falls Church, Virginia. She was 83.
Konigsburg’s career was marked by a willingness to take young readers seriously, as people who could decipher more complicated literature than simple, straightforward tales. Her novels often include intricate structures, puzzles, and characters who aren’t immediately likable. Both of the novels for which she won the Newbery—From The Mixed Up Files Of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler and The View From Saturday—are marked by their structural playfulness, which extends beyond their sometimes complicated subject matter. The former, which won the 1967 prize, features two kids who run away from home and hole up in the Metropolitan Museum of Art and is narrated by a woman in her 80s, who often tells the story in somewhat roundabout fashion. The latter, which won the 1996 prize, bounces between first- and third-person narrative styles as it hands over narration duties to its various characters.
Tackling issues that other writers for children might have avoided marked much of Konigsburg’s work, and it didn’t come without controversy. In particular, her Newbery Honor book, Jennifer, Hecate, Macbeth, William McKinley And Me, Elizabeth, also from 1967, attracted some discussion, thanks to the characters’ interest in witchcraft and one character claiming to actually be a witch. Silent To The Bone, released in 2000, prompted discussion over its dark and challenging themes, particularly pertaining to its protagonist, who stops speaking after he’s accused of endangering his baby sister.
Konigsburg’s work was always very interested in the idea of outsiders, of people who did not fit comfortably within the mainstream system and often found each other in outside interests. The kids in View From Saturday, for instance, all end up befriending each other via an academic quiz bowl competition. Father’s Arcane Daughter examines the stress placed on a family when a daughter, kidnapped and assumed to be dead, resurfaces almost 20 years later to find her father has remarried and has new children. A focus on outsiders in children’s literature may seem normal now, but when Konigsburg first began writing her books, it was decidedly less practiced.
Konigsburg submitted her first two manuscripts—which would become Jennifer, Hecate and Frankweiler—in 1966, and both were swiftly picked up, marking her as an instant success in youth publishing. She went to college and majored in chemistry, but by the time she wrote her first books, she was a stay-at-home mother to three children. Those early books were often influenced by things her children said or friends they had, and her work reflects that sense of understanding just how powerless children can feel—and just how they take that out on others. At their best, her books reflect how being an outsider can come to feel not just like a burden but also like something that requires a constant lashing out at the world. And yet in the midst of almost all of her novels, there’s an intense, moving kindness and tenderness. Konigsburg may not have written about the usual childhood protagonists, but that made her books all the more rewarding and memorable to her young fans.