Elaine Lobl Konigsburg was trained as a chemist, but she found her true calling as a literary alchemist, mixing humor, mystery and pragmatism to create such classic children's novels as "From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler" and "The View From Saturday."
Konigsburg, better known to millions of young readers by the name E.L. Konigsburg, died April 19 in Falls Church, Va., after suffering a stroke. She was 83.
In 1968, Konigsburg made children's literature history when her second children's novel, "From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler," won the Newbery Medal, and her first novel, "Jennifer, Hecate, Macbeth, William McKinley, and Me, Elizabeth," won a Newbery Honor.
Konigsburg is the only person to have won both a Newbery Medal and a Newbery Honor in the same year, a particularly spectacular feat considering she won for her first two books.
In 1997, she won a second Newbery Medal for "The View From Saturday," becoming one of only four authors to win the award twice.
Konigsburg also received other literary awards for her works; two of her novels, "A Proud Taste for Scarlet and Miniver" and "Throwing Shadows," were nominated for the National Book Award in the category of young people's literature.
In "Author Talk," a book edited by Leonard Marcus, Konigsburg noted that her books were based on what she perceived as a missing type of children's literature.
"As a child, I never found any characters in books whose lives resembled those of my classmates, my family and me. Years later, this made me want to write for children about things as they are -- about people and places that my own children would recognize as real."
Konigsburg likely will be best remembered for her Newbery Medal-winners, particularly "From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler," which twice was made into movies, one (titled "The Hideaways") starring Ingrid Bergman and the other with Lauren Bacall on TV.
In "Mixed-up Files," Konigsburg tells what happens when two children, Claudia and Jamie, decide to run away from their suburban Connecticut home and hide out in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Once there, the two children make themselves at home -- even sleeping on a historic bed -- solve an art mystery, but most importantly discover some truths about themselves.
As the mother of two sons and a daughter, Konigsburg was readily familiar with the world of childhood, but she also had a genius for translating that knowledge into books that were entertaining, thought-provoking and filled with emotional details readily recognizable to her young readers.
Here, for example, is the opening of "Mixed-up Files": "Claudia knew that she could never pull off the old-fashioned kind of running away. That is, running away in the heat of anger with a knapsack on her back. She didn't like discomfort; even picnics were untidy and inconvenient: all those insects and the sun melting the icing on the cupcakes. Therefore, she decided that her leaving home would not be just running from somewhere but would be running to somewhere. To a large place, a comfortable place, an indoor place, and preferably a beautiful place. And that's why she decided upon the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City."
Amy Kellman, a Pittsburgh children's literature consultant, was friends with Konigsburg and recently recalled in an email a memorable day that they shared long ago that connected with "Mixed-up Files."
"Our first major outing [as friends] was on a hot summer day in a car without air conditioning," Ms. Kellman wrote. "The passengers included her three school-age children and my two very young girls. We were heading for the Metropolitan Museum of Art to see Claudia's bed. It was a memorable trip. That energy and spirit is reflected in every one of her books. The books house her sense of humor, her take on life's highs and lows, and her insight into the world of the child."
In "The View From Saturday," Konigsburg told the story of how four quirky sixth-graders combine talents with the help of their debate coach, who has just returned to teaching 10 years after being paralyzed in a car accident.
In selecting the book for the 1997 medal, the Newbery committee called it "a unique, jubilant tour de force characterized by good humor, positive relationships, distinctive personalities and brilliant storytelling."
Pat Scales, chair of the American Library Association's Intellectual Freedom Committee and a close Konigsburg friend, called her "one of the giants in children's literature.
"She has given young readers the opportunity to hide in the Metropolitan Museum of Art with Claudia and Jamie, cheer for the 'outsiders' in 'The View From Saturday' and meet historical figures like Leonardo da Vinci and Eleanor of Aquitaine," Ms. Scales said in an email.
"Each of her novels offered a fresh reading experience, and they were laced with humor and enough mystery to pull readers along in ways they might least expect. Konigsburg was clever, funny and observant, and so were her characters."
Born in New York City, Konigsburg described herself in a chapter of "Author Talk," the book edited by Mr. Marcus, as a "serious" and "timid" child. She was the first in her family to go to college, earning a degree in chemistry from the Carnegie Institute of Technology in Pittsburgh.
By then, she had met her husband and moved with him to Jacksonville, Fla., after he finished his doctoral studies in psychology. The couple had three children, and Konigsburg began writing children's books when her youngest started kindergarten.
Konigsburg also revealed in "Author Talk" why she used just her initials as an author, noting that "I thought it was not important for readers to know whether I was male or female."
Overall, Konigsburg was clearly happy that she had chosen to become an author. As she noted in "Author Talk: "... from the mail that I get, I know that my books are a link -- teacher to student; parent to child; friend to friend; country to country.
"Being a link between generations and across borders is the best part of a lot of very good parts, all of which are immeasurable."
Karen MacPherson, the children's/teen librarian at the Takoma Park, Md., Library, can be reached at Kam.Macpherson@gmail.com. First Published May 7, 2013 4:00 AM