Thanks to the St. Augustine Rec0rd for the permission to republish this article.
Published: August 21, 2016
Elaine Konigsburg spent her childhood in small Pennsylvania towns. An avid reader growing up, the award-winning children’s writer was 37 years old and a mother of three before her first book, “Jennifer, Hecate, Macbeth, William McKinley, and Me, Elizabeth” was published.
Though Elaine showed artistic abilities early on, she tucked her artistic side away and entered Carnegie Institute of Technology. Her plan? To be a chemist.
She taught science for a while after graduation, but she found her true calling when her youngest child started kindergarten. While her children were in school, Elaine spent her mornings illustrating and writing children’s books.
It paid off.
Writing under the pen name E.L. Konigsburg, she established herself as a thought-provoking writer whose books addressed childhood and adolescent struggles openly and with wit.
She is one of six writers to win two Newbery Medals, the nation’s highest award in children’s literature. The Newbery is given for the year’s “most distinguished contribution to American children’s literature.” Elaine won her first Newbery in 1967 and the second in 1997.
In addition, Elaine was the U.S. nominee in 2006 for the biennial, international Hans Christian Andersen Award, the highest international recognition available to creators of children’s books.
Though the family of five spent some time in New Jersey and upstate New York, Elaine and husband, David, made Jacksonville their home. All of the couple’s children graduated from Bolles School.
For her accomplishments as an author in the sunshine state, Elaine Konigsburg will be inducted, posthumously, into the Literary Legends Hall of Fame at the Florida Heritage Book Festival in September.
The award will be accepted by her son, Paul.
The Record caught up with Paul Konigsburg by phone to talk about his mother’s process, inspiration and legacy as an author of children’s literature.
What was It like growing up with a literary mom?
The part I remember most is that she was a great cook. My favorite dish was Split Pea Soup.
She was also an artist, and that’s what she liked to do as a hobby. When we were lounging on the couch watching TV, Mom would say, “Freeze,” and we would hold that position for 45 minutes while she sketched us.
On the literary front, when we were in Port Chester, New York, we would come home to eat lunch. While we had lunch, Mom would read to us what she had written that day.
What was your mother’s writing process?
She would write in the morning and then do whatever else she had to do in the afternoon. She kept that discipline up pretty much her whole life. Mornings were reserved for writing and work. Sometimes, it would spill over into the afternoon. But even if she stared at the ceiling for eight hours, she was at her desk.
Was her first passion art or writing?
Her first passion was chemistry. She almost has a master’s in chemistry from Carnegie Tech. She did well with theory; she wasn’t so good with the practical. She blew up the lab at least twice and lost her eyebrow. A note to readers: Lithium and water do not mix. When we were living in Jacksonville the first time, she actually was a teacher of science at Bartram. This was before Bartram and Bolles merged. It was an all-girl’s school, and she taught biology and science.
So, she was both right- and left-brained?
Exactly. My dad who was a Ph.D. psychologist measured her intelligence, and she was off the scale. She could turn it on and off. When she turned it on, she could be quite intimidating.
Of the two, writing and illustrating, did your mother enjoy one more than the other?
She would often say she writes for a living and paints for a hobby. She painted to relax. When she went on a trip, she brought her sketch pad, and she would sketch all the time. She had quite the talent as a child. She was in second or third grade and on the chalkboard she drew a fly – a realistic fly. So she had the artistic talent very young. At one point she was thinking about becoming a painter, but she became a writer. This is after she decided she couldn’t be a chemist.
Where did she draw inspiration from?
Her family was her inspiration, but she would also work into that things that she cared about – art, her travels, stories about adolescents becoming adults and the changes that they go through.
Do you recognize yourself in any of her characters?
Oh, heck yeah. One day at school I was taking a science test. When I got home I said to Mom, “The test was easy. There was a guy inside of me telling me all the answers so I decided to just copy them down.” She said, “Oh, you have a George.” So she wrote a story called, “George.” It’s a story about Benjamin Dickenson Carr who had this little fellow who lived inside of him named George. George had the bad habit of speaking up at exactly the wrong time, saying the wrong things. My brother and sister were Claudia and Jamie in “From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler.”
Why children’s books as opposed to adult fiction?
Partly because she started looking at her kids and their lives and what they were going through. So she started writing about that. She actually never wrote for a specific age group. She wrote the novel. She did not dumb down the story or dumb down the vocabulary. She let the editors put the age group on it. As we got older, the books got older.
Your mother won several awards throughout her career. How did she feel about awards?
The word she used was “validation.” It validated the work that she’d done. She was a female in, at that time, a pretty male-dominated field, and she felt it put a level of validation on her work.
What did you think when you learned your mother would be inducted into the Literary Legends Hall of Fame?
I thought it was good. I thought it was appropriate. If my mom were alive, I know she would be happy to accept it.
The Literary Legends Reception will be from 5 to 7 p.m. Sept. 16 in the Solarium at Flagler College. The cost is $70, and registration is required.
To register, go to fhbookfest.com.