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  • Genine Babakian

The Seed, or Kernel, Behind Every Good Tale

We can all appreciate a good story. But do we pay equal tribute to the idea that launched that tale? I confess that I do not. A book I’ve loved can stay with me for decades, and, still, I don’t wonder how the author willed it into existence.

Perhaps that will change, now that I have learned the secret behind The Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, one of my all-time favorite children’s books. The fact that a stray piece of popcorn was the initial inspiration that motivated E.L. Konigsburg to write the 1968 Newbery Medal winner about two siblings – Claudia and Jamie – who run away to the Metropolitan Museum of Art is a fantastic origin story.

Konigsburg and her children were regulars at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The not-yet-published author used to take art classes there in the 1960s, after which she met up with her children – turned loose in the Met – to explore other parts of the museum.“The beginnings of the idea for the book started with a piece of popcorn on a blue silk chair,” the author wrote in a 2001 Museum Kids magazine dedicated to the Mixed-Up Files. “My three children and I were visiting the Museum, wandering through the period rooms on the first floor when I spotted a single piece of popcorn on the seat of a blue silk chair. There was a velvet rope across the doorway of the room. How had that lonely piece of popcorn arrived on the seat of that blue silk chair? Had someone sneaked in one night—it could not have happened during the day—slipped behind the barrier, sat in that chair, and snacked on popcorn? For a long time after leaving the Museum that day, I thought about that piece of popcorn on the blue silk chair and how it got there.”

Once that seed – or kernel – was planted, two other incidents conspired to give Konigsburg’s classic children’s book legs: a story in the New York Times about a mysterious statue the Metropolitan picked up for a few hundred dollars, and a family picnic that went awry. As her children complained about ants and discomfort, Konigsburg wondered what kind of wild, run away adventures they would seek. Perhaps, she mused, they would sneak off to the Metropolitan Museum, sleeping in beds designed for royalty.

And with those three building blocks, a Newbery Medal winner was born – as much a classic today as it was 50 years ago. Fans of the novel can enjoy some specially-themed tours at the Metropolitan Museum. The Adventures and Angels tour presented by Fable and Lark, for example, highlights Claudia and Jamie’s adventures as runaways.

Konigsburg, who passed away in 2013, went on to write 18 additional books for children and young adults over the next forty years. Yesterday she would have turned 89. Happy birthday, dear lady, and thank you. You have taught me that behind every good story is another excellent tale.

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