In many ways, the collected works of E.L. Konigsburg can be summarized quite simply. With few exceptions, her books feature children wise beyond their years. Whether you're skimming the self-aware musings of Claudia in, "From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler" or chancing across the adventures of the kids of, "A View From Saturday", Konigsburg excels at creating kids that embody the statement, Know Thyself. And the best example of this, without question, is her 1979 collection of five short stories entitled, "Throwing Shadows". The bookflap for this work says of the characters that, "In each of these lives something happens that allows the hero to throw a shadow that is his very own, one that is sharp and has a shape as specific as a fingerprint". At its worst, this book seems like a series of writing assignments penned by the author. At its best, it tells unique tales about learning to be honest with one's self.
Ned, Avery, Ampara, Phillip, and William each have a separate story to tell. For Ned, his life's work consists of finding and collecting fossilized shark teeth off the coast of northern Florida. When an oblivious tourist attaches himself to Ned with high hopes of shark tooth glory, Ned has to decide exactly how he should treat this unwanted, but pitiable, tagalong. Avery doesn't have it any easier. It's taken him some years to figure it out, but by the time he reaches sixth grade Avery has separated the world into catchers and catchee. You're either the kind of person who catches others, or you get caught. Avery is in the latter category. It's only through the insightful musings of his older brother, though, that he knows what to do with that information. Ampara is a little different from the other people in this book since she is not a child. She knows one though. A guide to the rural villages of Ecuador, Ampara meets and befriends Antonio. A boy with grand ambitions for becoming a man, he comes to realize through Ampara that trust is something adults must come to appreciate if they wish to be respected themselves. Phillip tells the viewer right from the start that he's not a spaz, a fact that may strain a the reader's credulity. After accompanying his mother to the nursing home where she works, he begins to slowly record the stories of the residents there. When the project gets out of hand, Phillip finds a way to make even some of the home's more prejudiced members open their minds a little. Finally, in William's story we are sucked fully into the world of antique dealers. As his mother becomes fascinated with learning more about critiquing pieces of furniture she learns to become more self-reliant, even at the expense of being right when others are wrong.
The stories are connected by the idea that human beings, regardless of age, are capable of learning more and being more than the world would sometimes have them. When it comes to themes such as this, Konigsburg is at her best. Each story's moral is clear and defined. It's the details that sometimes ring false for me. To my mind, I don't personally mind Konigsburg's typically precocious kid characters. As long as they don't become TOO worldly wise in the course of their adventures (paging "The View From Saturday") they're tolerable. But in this particular collection of tales, Konigsburg sometimes exchanges telling her stories clearly for telling her stories cleverly. The results are not always pleasing. As much as I might appreciate her style, it has a nasty tendency of obscuring the text. For example, in Avery's story we're constantly hearing about his run ins with the law (which is almost never his fault). A reader might wonder why Avery is constantly being given a hard time by people in authority. It's only when you get 75% through the story that you learn that Avery is black. A fact that would have been nice to know at, oh say, the story's beginning. Konigsburg's stories are riddled with little quirks and missteps such as this. They don't make for poor reading. Just readings that are slightly askew.
If anything, "Throwing Shadows" is an excellent book to look at in terms of understanding how Konigsburg's style has changed over the years. The stories told here are certainly accomplished, but they lack the polished voice of her later works. I certainly think that in spite of its 1979 publication date the book still has things to say to kids today. And it is certainly more sophisticated that some of her younger works. Still, in many ways this is a book produced by an author still trying to find her voice. Worth a look-see at the very least.