Obituary: E.L. Konigsburg / Novelist had knack of catering to youth

Feb. 10, 1930 - April 19, 2013

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E.L. Konigsburg, the author of "From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler" and other classics of children's literature that have provided escape and companionship to generations of young readers, died April 19 at a hospital in the Washington, D.C., suburb of Falls Church, Va. She was 83.

Her death, of complications from a stroke, was confirmed by her son Paul Konigsburg. She was a longtime Florida resident who grew up in Western Pennsylvania and had lived for the past five years with another son in Ashburn, Va.

Since her literary debut nearly half a century ago, Ms. Konigsburg has been celebrated as one of the finest storytellers of her era and genre. Her books fill a shelf or more and reveal an uncommon understanding of young people -- their hopes and fears, their longing for adventure beyond bedroom walls and playground gates and their ability to overcome a common childhood affliction called loneliness.

Such was the reverence surrounding Ms. Konigsburg that she twice received the Newbery Medal, one of the highest awards in children's literature. She had the even rarer honor of being named a runner-up and winner in the same year, and for her first two published books.

In the late 1960s, then a Florida housewife with no agent, Ms. Konigsburg mailed to the Atheneum publishing house in New York City her first manuscript -- a story of friendship and witchcraft that became "Jennifer, Hecate, Macbeth, William McKinley, and Me, Elizabeth."

While waiting for its publication, she began "From the Mixed-up Files," the now-famous novel about sister-and-brother runaways who take up residence in New York City's Metropolitan Museum of Art and untangle the mystery of a beguiling marble statue of an angel.

Both books were published in 1967, the first receiving the Newbery Honor and the second claiming the Newbery Medal. Three decades, more than a dozen books and millions of readers later, Ms. Konigsburg received her second Newbery Medal for "The View from Saturday" (1996), about brainy academic quiz bowlers and their endeavors to find their way in the world.

As she told it, Konigsburg had a special interest in middle-class children and their adolescence -- "the problems," she said, "that come about even though you don't have to worry if you wear out your shoes." She said she strove to write literature "that tackles the basic problems of who am I? What makes me the same as everyone else? What makes me different?"

Those were among the questions examined in the novel that remains her most noted, "From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler." (The volume was turned into a 1973 movie, "The Hideways," which featured Ingrid Bergman as the eponymous fictional art collector, and a 1995 television film with Lauren Bacall in the same part.)

Elaine Shirle Lobl was born Feb. 10, 1930, in New York City, and grew up in Farrell, Pa., in Mercer County. Her parents, immigrants from Central Europe, ran a bar.

Many of her books were inspired by experiences in her own life. She was Jewish and, as a girl, felt "always an outsider, to a certain extent," she told the Ledger of Lakeland, Fla. Her 1969 book "About the B'nai Bagels" followed a Little League team and one of its players, a young man about to have his bar mitzvah.

Ms. Konigsburg received a bachelor's degree in chemistry from what is now Carnegie Mellon University in 1952.

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