On Saturday, celebrated children’s author E.L. Konigsburg died at age 83, at a hospital in Falls Church, VA, following a stroke. And while Konigsburg didn’t have the same literary cache or trigger the same kind of post-childhood hipster nostalgia as, say, Maurice Sendak, and though most of her stories weren’t particularly New York or Brooklyn-centric, her death hit the brokester in me, hard.
Konigsburg wrote a number of memorable books for the 7-12 set, including 1996’s multi-narrative, Newbery Medal-winning The View from Saturday and Jennifer, Hecate, Macbeth, William McKinley, and Me, Elizabeth, which, as a third grade lit-nerd, I fully appreciated for the Shakespeare send-up. But the book Konigsburg will be most remembered for, From The Mixed-Up Files Of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, was particularly significant for this budding young budgeter, having been my first lesson in frugality.
From The Mixed-Up Files, which was published in 1967 and also won a Newbery Medal, tells the tale of two siblings who take up temporary residence in the Metropolitan Museum of Art after running away from home. There, the siblings — Claudia and Jamie Kincaid — live a life of artistic, vintage luxury, sleeping in an antique bed and tracing the origins of a mysterious angel statue that (spoiler alert!) turns out to be a long-lost work of Michelangelo. What I took most to heart was how they dealt with money. The Kincaids arrived at the Met with about $25 on hand, which would be guzzled by the museum’s “suggested donation” upon entry in today’s world. The Kincaids make it work, though, and count every penny with precision that still makes me feel guilty every time I use an off-brand ATM. At 12 and 9 years old, Claudia and Jamie worked out a tight budget for meals, transportation and other necessities. They were also crafty enough to come up with a way to replete their funds — by coin-diving in a Met fountain. This was resourcefulness at its finest, and it was the first time I understood the importance of money, of needing to mete out quarters and dimes for food, shelter and survival.
So cheers to you, E.L. Konigsburg, for teaching me, at the age of six or seven, the value of a dollar. I don’t think I got an allowance back then, and even when I did, it was a meager one. So I learned to hoard my bills carefully and not spend them on all the Star Wars action figures (though I did buy a few, because what second grader can live without a Han Solo collector’s item) just in case I ever needed to hide out in the American Museum of Natural History for a week or two. And though it doesn’t look like an interactive child’s iPad version of From The Mixed Up Files has hit the market yet, I hope generations of post-millennial spawn take Claudia and Jamie’s resourcefulness to heart, too.