Journey to an 800 Number – E. L. Konigsburg

I went to the library today in search of Madeleine L’Engle and was disappointed to find only two books – one was An Acceptable Time and another was a short picture book that I didn’t feel like browsing. So I turned to another tried-and-true author, E. L. Konigsburg.

I have a confession to make: I never read E.L. Konigsburg as a child, because I didn’t like her covers. They had real people in – what seemed like – scary situations (in the dark, lurking in corners, looking shocked) and the font that they used for her name had a creepy, Gothic, quality. And then, one year when I was working in a bookstore, I read A Proud Taste for Scarlet and Miniver, and I was hooked. I was also pleased to find that, as far as I can tell, E.L. Konigsburg is still writing. The View from Saturday and The Outcasts of 19 Schuyler Place were fantastic books about outcasts fitting themselves into the world as wonderful. Silent to the Bone was chilling, but well written. But I will talk more about those if and when I find them at the KPL. In the meantime, I’ll talk about this relative classic (copyright, 1982).

The protagonist, Maximilian (“Bo”) lives in the caretaker’s cottage of a private school where his mother is the caretaker. His mother has just married an older, wealthy, man and they’ve gone on their honeymoon, leaving Max to spend his summer with his father, who travels between various fairs and conventions in his trailer, renting out his camel. Max is keenly aware of what “money” and “social status” look like, and knows that they look nothing like his dad. The book is about Max’s journeys with his dad, but is mostly about his internal journey to finding what really matters. I wouldn’t say that Max reforms and changes his outlook on life, but he is certainly more likeable by the end of the book.

My take? Konigsburg wrote this book in the first person, which I sometimes find hard to get into. It doesn’t help that Max’s “voice” is stilted and snotty. It’s hard for me to get into Max’s skin. There are a few scenes where the dialogue is innocuous enough, but the characters get very emotional and angry, and I thought to myself, “Wha…?”. I had to remind myself that when Max spoke, he probably sounded like a prig and a snob, which changes the tone of the scene. This took away from the book, for me…but then, I have a very easy time reading the Konigsburg books where the protagonist is: (a) a girl, (b) a social misfit and (c) slightly whimsical or eccentric. So it’s a personal thing.

[Warning! Spoilers below!]

I think this book has fantastic messages for readers about how life is not cut-and-dried. It’s not 1.5 kids and a dog. It’s not simple. Max has a way of noticing things in a casual ‘take it for granted’ way. Konisburg works these observations into Max’s narrative subtly and Max doesn’t seem to notice that his life is not of the white picket fence variety:

  • His mom marries a much older wealthy man. Step-dad already has grandchildren, and Max is only about 11 or 12;
  • At one fair, Max meets his dad’s friends who are a family of Mexicans who are “pickers” from down south. No one makes a big deal of it, but all of the kids work as fruit pickers with their parents and “vacation” by coming up north to sell tacos at the fair. The kids aren’t in the school system – i.e. most likely without Status in the States.
  • Max’s dad has a girlfriend (of sorts) that he meets every year at the same gig. When they arrive there, Max spends every night alone and dad spends every night with his girlfriend.
  • Max meets and gets his first crush on a girl who, with her mother, spends her vacation lying about who they are to get into conventions, so that they can travel for free (room and board courtesy of the convention organizers, of course).
  • Max finds out that his mother was pregnant – by another man – before she married his dad.

Of all of the above, the only one that is treated like a Big Deal is the pregnancy, and even that is dealt with in a few swift lines. And you know what? I think that’s very Max. He’s relatively self-centred and just takes it all in without thinking about it too much. I think that is a great way to treat Mature Themes in Children’s Books. If you talk too much about something, you risk turning a small thing into a Really Big Deal. This way, readers of all ages are forced, with Max, to take the world’s strangenesses for granted.

Reading Age: It’s a short and easy read, with no pictures. I could have read it in grade 3, but I don’t think it would have interested me until grade 5-6.

Rating: a solid B.

Favourite Quote:

“I’m spending this night and all the nights that we’re at Oakes’ Ranch at Ruthie’s. Now if you want to make a complaint of child neglect, you just take a bus into Denver and catch that convention of social workers. They’re all good listeners, and they’ll like your story.”

“What if there’s an accident and the camper catches on fire?’

“Don’t play with matches,” Father said. “See you at breakfast.”

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