Thursday, May 6, 2021

Jennifer, Hecate, Macbeth, William McKinley, and me, Elizabeth by E. L. Konigsburg

Source of book: Audiobook from the library


E. L. Konigsburg has the distinction of the only author to win a Newbery Medal and a Newbery Honor in the same year. Back in 1968, From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankenweiler won the top prize, while this book was the runner-up. Konigsburg would later win another Newbery medal for The View from Saturday. That book won in 1997, nearly 30 years after the first. We also enjoyed The Outcasts of 19 Schuyler Place, written in 2004. Konigsburg had a long and illustrious career, writing well into her 70s. 


There are two things that have impressed me about her writing. First, her earlier books have aged very well. They avoid a lot of the prejudices of their time, probably because Konigsburg was always on the progressive side of things. Second - and very much related - her writing changes over time, and in a good way. Her characters become increasingly diverse, the issues contemporary. She is an example of someone who never stopped learning, changing, growing, and who was unafraid of positive social change. 


My kids joked that the title of this one was longer than the book. Perhaps a bit of an exaggeration. However, the audiobook is a mere two and a half hours long, which is short even by kid book standards. It really is a compact story, one of friendship and imagination. 


The title also could use an explanation. Jennifer loves Macbeth. Hecate is the goddess/demon who is summoned by the three witches. William McKinley is the name of their school. Konigsburg seems to like longer titles, which is a bit of a change from the current trend.


Like many of Konigsburg’s books, this one is in an urban setting. Well, a suburban setting. Elizabeth lives in an apartment, in a town where most live in suburban houses. Elizabeth has just moved to town, and doesn’t entirely fit in. She is lonely, until she meets Jennifer, who is...a bit odd. Claiming to be a witch, she seems to have an uncanny ability to anticipate events, and perhaps even influence them. Jennifer takes on Elizabeth as an “apprentice witch,” and gives her a series of bizarre assignments, including dietary mandates that last a week. (From raw onions to raw eggs to giving up candy.) Jennifer comes off as a bit snooty, but perhaps she has her reasons. As we find out near the end, Jennifer is pretty much the only black kid in the school, and thus a bit of an outsider as well. Certainly nothing like the cheerleader sorts. 


The two agree to try to make a “flying ointment,” that will enable them to, well, fly. This goes weird at the end, because the recipe calls for a live frog, which they have already bonded with as a pet. Essentially a game of “chicken” occurs, and Elizabeth assumes the friendship ends when she saves the frog. She has misunderstood, however, and the two reconcile at the end and become more normal friends. 


As usual, Konigsburg’s writing is nuanced, empathetic, and just straight-up quirky. Her characters are always the misfits, the free spirits, the kids that will never be popular - but are a hell of a lot more fun to hang around with. This short book had humor, kindness, bizarre stuff, and a realistic (if unusual) childhood friendship. There is a reason we love Konigsburg. 


The audiobook was read by Carol Jordan Stewart. Because of the nature of the book - a small number of characters, and very little that isn’t in Elizabeth’s first-person voice, there wasn’t a lot for the narrator to do, other than stay out of the way. So, I don’t have a strong impression of Stewart’s work in this case, other than that it was fine, and there were no sour notes. 


I might also mention that the book cover in this case has a frog in a pair of hands, unlike the original cover (and illustrations by Konigsburg) and many of the subsequent versions, which make it clear that Jennifer is black. In the audiobook, the revelation is kind of unexpected - Elizabeth recognizes Jennifer’s mom because she is the only African American in the audience of their school play. In the context with the illustrations, it would not have been so much of an afterthought, of course. 


Konigsburg took some flak for this book, ostensibly because of its portrayal of little girls engaging in “witchcraft.” Which, yes, many Fundie parents would still freak out about that. I have to wonder, though, if the casual assumption of interracial friendship was a factor as well. Konigsburg, as she does in many of her books, just assumes diversity, and assumes that kids make friends. This probably reflects her own cosmopolitan childhood, but I also believe it was an intentional decision to normalize integration. She deserves credit for that, as all of the books we have read so far encourage children to embrace those outside their tribe.  


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