Konigsburg, E.L. From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. New York, NY: Scholastic, 1967.
Claudia knew that she could never pull off the old-fashioned kind of running away. That is, running away in the heat of anger with a knapsack on her back. She didn’t like discomfort; even picnics were untidy and inconvenient: all those insects and the sun melting the icing on the cupcakes. Therefore, she decided that her leaving home would not be just running from somewhere but would be running to somewhere. To a large place, a comfortable place, an indoor place, and preferably a beautiful place. And that’s why she decided upon the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.
I read this book as a kid and I absolutely loved it. Now that I am reading all of the Newbery Award winners, I decided to re-read those I read as a child. This is probably the one, out of less than a dozen I’d read as a kid, that I most looked forward to reading again. The anticipation was high, and I wondered if it would hold up to the test of time. My mother liked the book when I was younger, so I was fairly confident that I still would. But there are a lot of times when nostalgia gives things (books or music or movies or TV shows or board games) a sense of being wonderful and iconic, and through the years makes you say, “I loved this so much as a child, I just KNOW it’s still that wonderful today!” … but then quite often encountering it again years later is disappointing.
I had nothing to worry about. From the Mixed-Up Files, the winner from 1998, holds up as a classic. Yes, there are things that are different now. The cost of a train ride is a lot more. A lot of kids have cell phones by the time they are Claudia’s age, which probably makes running away a bit harder. The internet has made research in libraries a lot different too.
Differences aside, it’s still a wonderful book about a girl and her brother who come together in an adventure. Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler narrates the story and explains what happens to them in a way the children cannot articulate:
What happened was: they became a team, a family of two. There had been times before they ran away when they had acted like a team, but those were very different from feeling like a team. Becoming a team didn’t mean the end of their arguments. But it did mean that the arguments became a part of the adventure, became discussions not threats. To an outsider the arguments would appear to be the same because feeling like part of a team is something that happens invisibly.
This is one of many points where it is clear that Mrs. Frankweiler is the best narrator for the story. Right from the start it is made clear that she is tellling the story as a letter to her lawyer as an explanation for changes to be made to her will. She uses his name frequently, drawing the reader out of the story only enough to remember that the narrator is, in fact, a character, though she doesn’t physically enter the story until more than halfway through the novel. But most importantly, she tells the reader things that Claudia and Jamie can not – because as she says, the children don’t have the words to express it, or because there are things she knows that the children do not.
I could go on and on, but just want to say one last thing I love about this book: after running away, and feeling quite rich with almost $25 (which was a lot, back in the late 1960s) and sleeping in a big, lush, royal bed in the museum, the children start to refer to each other as Lady Claudia (instead of Claude) and Lord James (instead of Jamie). Later, when they have spent their last penny, Jamie calls her Lady Claudia and she retorts, “You can’t call me Lady Claudia anymore. We’re paupers now.” This made me laugh because throughout the novel the siblings bicker about money, and she always wants to spend it and gets mad when Jamie says they can’t spend money on a taxi or a hot fudge sundae; but at the end she is mad that they have no money left when in fact, if it weren’t for Jamie she would not have been able to afford running away to begin with.
And this, taking place mostly in a museum, is a wonderful lead-in to the next Newbery Award winner I read. Look for my review of I, Juan de Pareja on Friday.