So, there was a time when I’ve never read E.L. Konigsburg. It wasn’t that long ago. Back in 2013 we did a highlight on her books, and I remember saying to Daphne that I’ve never read her and that I wanted to. That year, Daphne gave me a copy of The View from Saturday for Christmas, saying it was her favourite by Konigsburg. For some reason, I didn’t read it until last September, when I brought it to Japan with me because it was light and thin (I could start and finish it in one long train ride) and I knew it would be good.
And it WAS good. So good that I wondered why I didn’t read it earlier, but at the same time, it made me wonder if being on a two-hour train ride on Saturday morning alone was the best time for me to start and finish the book. Anyway, it’s about four sixth graders – Julian, Noah, Nadia and Ethan – who were all very different but had something important in common. Julian realised this, and invited the others for tea. Their teacher, Mrs. Olinski, also realised this, and chose them for her Academic Bowl team, but she didn’t know why until they had won the championship (not really a spoiler; this was established from the beginning). It may not sound like much, and really it’s about so much more, and I will write about some of it here, but really it’s better if you just read it for yourself.
Another book that Daphne recommended, and I loved, was Garret Freymann-Weyr’s My Heartbeat. That book is not similar at all to The View from Saturday (and when I asked Daphne later to recommend other books I’d love as much as these two she said, “but they’re such different books”, which is true) but I guess to me they have the same sort of feel, or rather, they made me feel the same way.
Both are books I wish I had read when I was younger, maybe around the same time I was so crazy about Francesca Lia Block and A Wrinkle in Time. Both are coming-of-age novels, of that quiet, soft-but-strong type. And being bildungsromans, they’re both about journeys, even if they’re different kinds of journeys. I usually get thrown off – but not exactly put off – by multiple narrators, and The View from Saturday is told from the point of view of not just the four students, but also their teacher. Yes, an adult POV in a children’s book! It took me awhile to realise that this isn’t very common, but it felt natural in this book. In fact, each of the characters have their own distinct personalities and voice that I never had any trouble changing between them.
The students – Julian, Noah, Nadia, and Ethan – are sort of oddities, both the kind of people I would’ve liked to know in school (but only found online, via witchbaby egroups), and the kind of people that many wouldn’t believe existed (probably the same people that think John Green’s protagonists are too smart to be real teenagers). They were precocious, but that was exactly why I like them so much – that they were that, but written in a way that it became part and parcel of who they were. And I loved their Saturday gatherings for tea and conversation. And then, of course, there’s the fact that the final round questions for the Academic Bowl were connected to their lives and interests. It’s highly improbable, sure, but I liked that in the end, their own lived experiences helped them win, rather than all the studying/practising.
I did have small misgivings (while I adored Julian, his father seemed to border on being a stereotypical “wise Asian”) but it didn’t take away the overall feeling I got from the book – it’s such a lovely, gentle, optimistic (without ignoring bad things) sort of book, the kind I’d want to pass on to my nieces once they’re old enough.