A Little Happier: How a Loose Piece of Popcorn in a Museum Inspired a Masterpiece

I’m a huge fan of children’s literature and young-adult literature, so of course I’ve read E.L. Konigsburg’s masterpiece From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler (Amazon, Bookshop) countless times.

Words can’t describe how much I love this book, which won the Newbery Medal. It’s about a sister and brother, Claudia and Jamie, who run away from their suburban existence to hide out in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

These days, as part of the research for my new book about the five senses, I’m visiting the Met every day, and I’m sure my love for this book, stretching back to my childhood, is one reason that I was drawn to that exercise.

But despite my long love for the novel, only recently did I learn how E. L. Konigsburg got the idea for the book.

When E. L. Konisburg died, her family, friends, and colleagues gathered at the Metropolitan Museum for a private event to celebrate her life.

An account of the event in Publishers Weekly described how her son Paul told the story of how his mother had first had the idea for From the Mixed-up Files.

Welcoming his mother’s “family” and “publishing family” to the event, Paul Konigsburg spoke about his mother’s “long, varied connection with the museum,” which began years before fictional siblings Claudia and Jamie Kincaid ran away to live there. During the mid-1960s, Konigsburg’s mother would drop off Paul and his siblings, Laurie and Ross, at the museum, while she attended her own art classes. By the time the children made their routine visits to the knights in armor, the mummy, and the Impressionists (at Laurie’s request), Konigsburg’s class would be finished and she would return to explore the museum with them.

On one such occasion, Paul recalled, his mother spotted a single piece of popcorn on the floor next to an ornate piece of royal furniture, which was completely blocked off from public access. He remembers his mother wondering aloud, where did that popcorn come from? And it was that moment, “burned into shrapnel memory,” that he believes formed the kernel of the story that would become From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler.

In 2017, in celebration of the 50th anniversary of the book’s publication, Jia Tolentino wrote a fascinating piece in the New Yorker.

It’s a great reminder—you never know what kernel of an experience can lead to a transformative idea.

If you’d like to see a list of my favorite works of children’s literature and young-adult literature, you can find it here.

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