Thursday, March 13, 2008

Egghead Children's Books

Ever since I first read From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Franksweiler and then the marvelously named Jennifer, Hecate, Macbeth, William McKinley, and me, Elizabeth, I've been a fan of books by E.L. Konigsberg.

I just checked her latest book out of the library, The Mysterious Edge of the Heroic World, and I liked it. In recent years, I was mildly irritated by the didacticism of books like The View from Saturday. It seemed to me to embody the worst aspects of the kind of egghead admiration society that Madeleine L'Engle liked to create in books like The Arm of the Starfish (please, the Tallis Canon?). But Konigsberg is capable of a pretty wide range, as she demonstrates by jumping from the contemporary Floridian setting of T-backs, T-shirts, Coat and Suit to the 12th-century setting of A Proud Taste for Scarlet and Miniver, about Eleanor of Acquitaine. I didn't mind the didacticism of The Outcasts of Schuyler Place so much, because it does a fairly delicate job (for a children's book) of suggesting how important it is to think for yourself.

The Mysterious Edge of the Heroic World is cut out of the same cloth as The Outcasts of Schuyler Place, even including some of the same characters. Despite a few wrong notes, like trying to use ungrammatical speech to show that one boy doesn't have the advantages of the other (in this increasingly homogenized world, a boy as intelligent as her character would not speak in such an ignorant way), the mystery has some interesting and subtle turns. They were a bit too subtle for the taste of my 11-year-old son, but I liked them. I think he may have been reacting to the imitative aspect of trying to write a book about children learning about art in the wake of the popular books Chasing Vermeer and The Wright Three.

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