Classic Middle Grade: The View from Saturday by E.L. Koningsburg
I’ve been “studying” middle grade fiction, reading both recent releases as well as older, classic titles I didn’t read when I was younger. My first post on classic MG (and YA) was Madeleine L’Engle’s Austin Family series.
The View from Saturday is the 1997 Newbery Medal winner by E.L. Koningsburg. Koninsburg was an established writer at the time, publishing regularly since 1967 (her last novel was published in 2007; she died in 2013). One of the two novels she published in 1967, From The Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, won the 1968 Newbery, and from what I can tell, this is pretty much her second most popular book.
I read Frankweiler when I was younger, and you might have too…it’s “the one where the brother and sister run away and live in the Met.” Nevertheless, it’s been so long that I don’t think I can accurately compare the two, and I haven’t read anything else of Koningsburg’s to comment on how her style has changed over time.
1996 doesn’t play a huge role in The View from Saturday, but the passage of time witnessed by Koninsburg is commented upon. Mrs. Olinski, who has returned to teaching after 10 years due to an accident that left her a paraplegic, notes that the idea of “sixth graders have changed” has truth. They’re more outspoken and meaner. Regardless of how explicit this contrast was in Koninsburg’s intention, it’s a fair observation.
The View from Saturday is…kind of a novel? It’s also kind of a short story collection. I feel like it’s something that would be difficult to sell to middle grade publishers today. The central question is of how did Mrs. Olinski chose her winning young Academic Team, but it isn’t a plot-centered mystery. It’s rather character-driven, and the stories unfold in sort of a nesting egg. In between interludes from third person perspective at the academic meet, there are first person stories of how the characters all came to meet each other and Mrs. Olinski and how they formed their bonds. There’s Noah Gershom, an intelligent boy who discovers he really likes calligraphy. Nadia Diamonstein is the product of a “hybrid” family (half-Jewish, and also recently divorced parents) with a dog she loves very much. Ethan Potter is a quiet boy from a family of farmers prominent in the little upstate New York town, in the shower of his successful older brother, and discovers his love for the crew side of theater. And then there’s Julian Singh, an Indian boy with a British accent from his boarding school time in Britain who gets bullied because of his strangeness (and not “this kid is Indian” kind of bullying, the “this kid dresses like a British schoolkid” kind of bullying).
They meet up, they chat and bond, they share amusing anecdotes. They have a good run as the Academic Team (which is much more difficult than when I was in academic team…we were all multiple choice). It’s…charming. The characters seem much too sophisticated for their age, but that goes along with the tone. There’s this sense of magical surrealness throughout. But as you may have guessed by my description and the under-200 page count, there isn’t much to it–as a novel, at least. And yet, it also isn’t quite a short story collection, because it feels like it’s building toward something. I do appreciate the idea that some things just are wonderful and can’t be explained, but something about it just feels incomplete? Truthfully, this review is up late because I don’t have that much to say. It’s an interesting little book, complex for its age level, and well-written, but it didn’t leave much for me when it was over.