ReRead: The View from Saturday // by E.L. Konigsburg


//published 1996// A Newbery Medal winner //

I first read this absolutely fabulous book in April 2014, and I fell in love.  Konigsburg’s writing is masterful and perfect in every way.

This is one of those books that it sounds like I should hate, as there really isn’t a great deal of plot, and it’s combined with multiple first-person narratives and a completely wonky timeline.  But Konigsburg has the knack of being able to tell a story within a story, while weaving life-lessons in a way that you barely realize you are learning them until you get to the end and find yourself chewing on the book for days afterwards.

One of the stories, the one that ties the others together, is the story of four sixth-graders who comprise their class’s quiz bowl team – a team that beat not only the other sixth grade teams, not only the seventh and eighth grade teams, but have also won district and gone on to state: unprecedented for their age.  The question everyone asks is simple: how did their teacher, Mrs. Olinski, choose them?

Throughout the book, some of the story is told in third person, and there is a first-person chapter for each of the students.  Each child has had something happen to him or her in the past year, something that has changed who they are, has changed their perspective on life.  They are not necessarily events that, objectively, are huge or momentous.  They are, for the most part, everyday circumstances.  But, strangely enough, it is usually everyday circumstances that can change the trajectory of our lives.

A lot of reviews I have read for this book are negative.  People seem to either love it or hate it.  The people who hate it say that it is pointless and disjointed.  And they are right in the sense that there is not necessarily a linear story being told, and so there isn’t exactly a beginning or an end.  But it is a story nonetheless.  This book is one that embraces the realization that life is about giving and accepting, finding and losing, asking questions and providing answers – in short, fitting into your life is about learning to find balance within it.

I wanted to walk the road between Sillington House and mine.  I wanted to mark the distance slowly.  Something had happened at Sillington House …  Had I gained something at Sillington House?  Or had I lost something there?  The answer was yes.

Life itself is not linear, and has no clear beginnings or endings.  Even our births and deaths are not truly our beginnings or endings.  Sometimes the answers to our questions are more questions, and sometimes we find answers to questions we didn’t even know we were asking.

I highly recommend this book. Although it is a short read, it is worth reading slowly.  It is a book to savor and contemplate, and is one that is worth reading more than once.  5/5.

From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler // by E.L. Konigsburg

//published 1967// Also a Newbery Medal winner //

//published 1967// Also a Newbery Medal winner //

My theory is that every kid loves a good running away story,  because every kid – no matter how happy his situation – yearns to run away.  My all-time favorite running away stories are My Side of the Mountain by Jean Craighead George, The Boxcar Children by Gertrude Chandler Warner, and From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler.  I heartily recommend all three for the young people in your lives, and for you, especially if you’ve never given them a whirl.

The Mixed-Up Files is the story of Claudia and her brother James.  Claudia plans a runaway from her home in the suburbs, and chooses James from among her brothers because he’s good with money.  Instead of running away to the wilderness like most kids, Claudia plans her escape to New York City: specifically, Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Konigsburg’s writing is brilliant.  I appreciate it much more as an adult than I did when I was a child, but even then I sensed how perfect it really is.  The story is narrated in the first person, by Mrs. Frankweiler. However, she doesn’t actually come into the story until almost the very end, so the writing is able to capture the personableness of a first-person narrative while retaining some third-person distance from the action.  Mrs. Frankweiler is penning this story as a letter to her lawyer, Saxonburg, to “explain certain changes I want made in my last will and testament.”

I think that part of the reason that this is a perfect runaway tale is because throughout there is the question of “Why?”  Claudia and James have a very nice home with perfectly nice parents and all of their needs – and most of their wants – met.  Claudia herself isn’t exactly sure why she has planned this adventure, but there is a sense of not running away as much as running to – towards an attempt to find herself, to understand who she is.  That attempt of learning to balance being different from everyone else while also wanting to fit in.

In the story, Claudia and James successfully hid in the Museum.  The day after their arrival, the Museum puts its new status on display – a beautiful angel carved from white marble.  The creator of the statue is unknown, but it is possible that it was made by Michelangelo.  Discovering who carved Angel becomes Claudia’s new mission, and she and James work together to research and understand, and eventually end up on the doorstep of the woman who sold Angel: Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler.

This book, as I said, is brilliantly written.  It is engaging and thoughtful, but fast-paced enough to keep younger readers intrigued.  I first read this book when I was around Claudia’s age, and I loved it.  My original edition has literally fallen into pieces (my mother’s name is written on the title page, as it was hers when she was a girl), so I bought another copy at Half-Price Books one day.  Turns out that this edition is actually a 35th Anniversary edition with an afterword written by Konigsburg in 2007.

I was asked to write a foreword to this 35th anniversary edition of From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, but I myself never read forewords until after I’ve read the book, and then I read them only if I really liked the book and want to know something more.  So instead of a foreword, I have written and afterword and hope that you are reading it now because you liked this book and want to know something more.

My sentiments, exactly, actually.  Why are forewords even a thing??  They should basically always be afterwords.

At any rate, I love what she has to say about her story:

Angel became part of Claudia’s story about finding herself, about how the greatest adventure lies not in running away, but in looking inside, and the greatest discovery is not in finding out who made a statue but in finding out what makes you.

I think that I sensed this as a child.  All three of my favorite runaway books touch on this concept, especially My Side of the Mountain – the idea that running away isn’t as important as understanding who you are.  Sometimes you do need to get away from routine and regularity for that to happen, but if you aren’t open to learning about what makes you you, running away won’t change your circumstances.  Claudia goes back home content, not because she ran away and came back, but because she learned something about herself, a secret that only she knows and understands, and now she is different.

This is a wonderful and perfect book – and, bonus, a fast read, too!  I highly recommend this delightful story.  5/5

Johnny Tremain


by Esther Forbes

Published 1943

For some reason, I seem to keep stumbling across Newbery Award winners lately (The View from Saturday and Ginger Pye leap to mind).  Johnny Tremain is classic historical fiction – set in Boston just before, during, and after the Boston Tea Party, ending with the Battle at Lexington.  Johnny is an extremely skilled, and thus valuable, apprentice to a silversmith in Boston.  When a terrible accident leaves Johnny’s hand maimed, and unable to work silver, everything in his life is turned upside-down.

While set during tumultuous times, in many ways Johnny Tremain is way more about Johnny than about the history being made in Boston.  The way that he grows and matures enables the reader to see the differences between various schools of thought at the time.  Forbes does a good job of portraying not only good/bad Tories and good/bad Whigs, but even good/bad British soldiers, reminding the readers that everyone in history is human.

Several real people are woven into the story, as Johnny becomes involved with the Sons of Liberty – Paul Revere (a silversmith himself), Sam Adams, John Adams, John Hancock, and others.  Johnny himself goes from someone who simply didn’t care about the way his country is governed – because Johnny most certainly starts as an obnoxious and self-centered individual – to a passionate Rebel, and Forbes writes that transformation brilliantly.

For me, the weak part of the story is the entire part about the Lytes and Johnny’s possible familial connection to them.  But in some ways, I think that the point of that story line is to emphasize how this new country that is being birthed is one that (theoretically) does not depend on royalty or lords, but is democratic and equal.

Forbes is writing for children; this book is probably a sixth-grade level, but the story is strong enough to hold the attention of an adult, and possesses enough depth to give that adult food for thought.  There is a brilliant section where James Otis stands up and points out everything that these rebels have to lose, and demands to know why it is worth fighting for.  He then goes on to give the answer to his own question:

James Otis was on his feet, his head close against the rafters that cut down into the attic, making it the shape of a tent.  Otis put out his arms.

“It is all so much simpler than you think,” he said.  He lifted his hands and pushed against the rafters.

“We give all we have, lives, property, safety, skills…we fight, we die, for a simple thing.  Only that a man can stand up.”

Sometimes, for me, I read historical fiction as though it isn’t historical at all, but simply fiction.  I don’t want to know if these are things Revere really thought, or if he and all the others were selfish, money-grubbing men who were unprincipled enough to take an entire country to war for their own gain.  I don’t read these books to debate whether or not what this book says what they believed was actually what they believed.  Instead, I read it like regular fiction – are the beliefs they express in this story ones that are worthwhile?

A truly good story, a timeless one like Johnny Tremain, carries on not because it records history so faithfully, but because it reminds us of what we ought to stand for, reminds us what rights and privileges are worth fighting for, reminds us of who we should be.

The View from Saturday


by E.L. Konigsburg

Published 1996

So I’ve begun to realize that there are books I loved as a child, books that have become beloved classics in my personal library, and that these books were written by people who wrote other books.  Part of me, though, is a bit terrified of those other books.  What if they don’t live up to expectations?  Wolves of Willoughby Chase is one of my dearest books, but the rest of the series, which I recently read as an adult, was rather dreadful.

One of these beloved childhood books for me is The Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler.  I can’t explain why, exactly.  Something about the brilliance of running away to a giant museum closely paralleled my dream of living in a library (specifically Wagnall’s Memorial, which is like a castle!), and just the magic of the whole idea.  As I got older, I was able to better emphasize with Claudia, and the struggle to be an individual and to do something special, something unique – to have a secret that was yours.  

Point is, a couple months ago I was looking at my bedraggled copy of The Mixed-Up Files (no covers and it’s taped together) and I thought to myself, I’m pretty sure Konigsburg is a famous author and wrote lots of other stuff.  I should try one of those!  So I typed in her name on the library website, and there was The View from Saturday, and I decided to give it a whirl.

Overall, I’m not a huge fan of slice-of-life kind of stories, and I have an inherent suspicion of award winning/classic books, which too often are dreary, depressing, pointless, and full of stupid, whiny people who never do realize how good their lives actually are.  And so I approached The View from Saturday with some trepidation.  What I read was a book that I purchased the day that I finished it so that I could add it to my collection.

Here’s the tricky part, though – I can’t explain why.   I don’t really know what it is about this book that so completely captured me.  It wasn’t anything like I expected it to be; it was a perfectly crafted story in every way.

It is a story, sort of, about Mrs. Olinski’s sixth-grade Academic Bowl team, which has somehow  managed to beat not only the other sixth-grade teams, but the seventh-and-eight-graders, too – and beyond.  How did these four completely different children end up on the same team, and why do they get along so well?  How did Mrs. Olinski choose them?  The story unwinds, partly taking place during a current quiz bowl competition, partly told by each of the four children as they recall a critical event in their recent lives that led them to where they are today.

And while that is the bare bones of the book, it’s nothing like what the book really is.  This was a book full of insight and beauty, yet told in a way that is simple and readable even for a someone the same age as this eclectic sixth-grade team.

After The Souls had won the Epiphany Middle School championship, Dr. Roy Clayton Rohmer paid a visit to Mrs. Olinski and asked – guess what? – why she had chosen this team.  She still didn’t know (and wouldn’t until after it was over), but by that time the success of The Souls (even if she did not yet know that they were The Souls) had made Mrs. Olinski less timid.

Dr. Rohmer announced that he had just completed a three-day workshop on multiculturalism for ed-you-kay-toars.  Mrs. Olinski had always been amused by educators who called themselves ed-you-kay-toars.  So, when he asked her how she had chosen the four members of her academic team, Mrs. Olinski knitted her brow and answered with hushed seriousness.  “In the interest of diversity,” she said, “I chose a brunette, a redhead, a blond, and a kid with hair as black as print on paper.”

Dr. Rohmer was not amused.  He gave Mrs. Olinski a capsule lecture on what multiculturalism really means.

“Oh,” she said, “then we’re still safe, Dr. Rohmer.  You can tell the taxpayers that the Epiphany Middle school team has one Jew, one half-Jew, a WASP, and an Indian.”

“Jews, half-Jews, and WASPs have nothing to do with diversity, Mrs. Olinski.  The Indian does.  But we don’t call them Indians any more.  We call them Native Americans.”

“Not this one,” she replied.

“Mrs. Olinski,” Dr. Rohmer asked, “would you like it if people called you a cripple?”

Mrs. Olinski gave up.  Everyone believed that she could be wounded  by the word cripple.  She could never explain to Dr. Rohmer, nor would she try to, that the word itself does not hurt, but the manner of its delivery can.  For all of his training, Dr. Rohmer would never believe that cripples themselves are a diverse group, and some make jokes.

I think I loved this book because it explored different life-situations without making any seem better or worse than another.  Happy parents, divorced parents, widowed parents – kids who had lived there all their lives, kids from someplace else, kids from a different country – Konigsburg manages to explore the concept of true diversity – that we are, by nature, diverse – that diversity has nothing to do with skin color, and everything to do with the simple fact of being.

I strongly recommend this book.  It’s a short, easy read, and one  that I could barely put down.  Even though it is not a plot-driven story, it engaged me completely as Konigsburg wove together such different lives into one whole.

It’s truly rare for me to embrace a book so completely.  As an adult, I so rarely come across a “magic” book – one that becomes an instant classic, one that I know I will read time and again – but The View from Saturday did just that.  I can’t recommend it highly enough.  5/5.