From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, by E.L. Konigsburg. I read the copy pictured here, a paperback from Atheneum Books. From the Mixed-Up Files won the Newbery Medal in 1967.
This childhood classic had flown completely below my radar for my whole life until my daughter read it for school. Then it just sounded so fun. My then-fourth-grade daughter sang its praises and commended her teacher for always choosing “good literature.”
The whole thing–from title to final chapter–makes me wonder about our expectations of great literature. Children’s literature, in the scheme of things, is a relatively new thing, at least as a serious art form. In 1967, I am guessing that it was just a little easier to win a Newbery Medal. Not that this book is bad, it’s just not as wonderful as I had expected.
The writing is great enough that it is never distracting and is even occasionally quotable. So there’s that. But the story?
It’s obviously unrealistic when two kids (12 and 8) run away from home and attempt to live in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. But instead of making this a more magical sort of novel, Konigsburg goes to great lengths to convince us that it is possible and also fails to deal with the family involved and/or the repercussions of a stunt like that. I never bought it. And what’s more, I found the main character to be not only obnoxious, but completely unbelievable. Some kids might be super-intelligent or even old souls, but they don’t think and act like adults. Everything about Claudia, including her main motivation, was too old for her.
And yet this book remains at the top of lists for best children’s literature of all time.
So what are the positives, then? It’s kind of fun the way this is presented as a case from the files of a woman who has studied the story (although it doesn’t completely play out, since many interactions were totally beyond the ability of someone to have studied). The characters have great potential, and the details are interesting, especially to kids. In other words, this book definitely works as imagination fodder. How would I run away? Where would I run? How would I survive?
But–I am back at it–I didn’t like the characters. And let’s face it: this story is driven by characters because it is lacking in the plot department. Sure, it’s a super idea, but not much happens in the story. The tension arises from their attempts at not getting caught and Claudia’ sort of bizarre internal struggle and how that arbitrarily involves a new statue. There are no, say, guard chases or near-starvation. Just a slow-moving pretend-report of two kids kicking around the museum without much of a thought for their perfectly normal home life.
Sorry, back to the character issues again. Like I said before, I found Claudia obnoxious and unrealistic. But it’s more than that. Not only did I not like a single (of the very few) characters in this book, but I found myself so hungry for more authentic windows into their personality. And it never happened. They were like boring aliens. Boring aliens that I distrusted.
And I’m sincerely sorry if this is one of your favorite books. It is a classic, and it is loved and honored. In fact, it’s a staple of school reading. If I were a teacher, it would not be one I would want to re-read, but I can see where teaching it–getting into the minds of real students–would be fulfilling.
It makes me want to try some other of Konigsburg’s lauded books, but unfortunately I am already in the middle of two reading lists, one of which is Bronte and the other of which is Arthurian. I may or may not return, since this is the only title that has made it on to the Best Books list.
So, for the sake of respect, let’s do a little history lesson. Elaine Lobl Kongsburg was born in 1930 and passed away just a few years ago, in 2013. She had been born to Jewish immigrants in New York City, but grew up in Pennyslvania, where she excelled academically and met and married Mr. Konigsburg. She studied chemistry in college and became a science teacher at a girl’s school in Florida. She had kids, she took up painting, and only started to write when her last child started kindergarten. From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler was one of her first two books (the other being Jennifer, Hecate, Macbeth, William McKinley and Me, Elizabeth), both of which were nominated for the Newbery that year. She was to go on to write many more children’s books, again winning the Newbery in 1997 for The View from Saturday.
Konigsburg was known for her writing about taboo subjects in children’s literature (including loss, sexuality, even interracial tension). She also treated her children characters as mentally autonomous and capable, and wrote about what happens to adults should they chose to ignore this. Konigsburg always wrote from her experiences and very careful observation of her own children and the world in which they lived. Which I guess explains why Claudia and Jamie are so adult-like. (It still doesn’t make me feel like they are any more realistic. I’m sure Konigsburg would disagree.)
So, in conclusion, I hope readers continue to read and enjoy this book and some of Konigsburg’s others. But they are not my cup of tea. Even though I can recognize the simple elegance of the writing and the fascination of the ideas, I did not enjoy the plot or the characters of this particular book.
There are a few movie adaptations, but none that I could seem to get my hands on.
“Manhattan called for the courage of at least two Kincaids” (p27).
“‘Claudia,’ Jamie said, ‘you are quietly out of your mind'” (p28).
“…high heeled shoes. (I always say that those you wear ’em deserve ’em)” (p32).
“Each felt that peculiar chill that comes from getting up in the early morning. The chill that must come from one’s own blood-stream, for it comes in summer as well as winter, from some inside part of your that knows it’s early morning” (p43).
“If you think of doing something in New York City, you can be sure that at least two thousand other people have had the same thought. And of the two thousand who do, about one thousand will be in line waiting to do it” (p50).
“‘Someone very poor,’ Claudia corrected. ‘Rich people have only penny wishes'” (p84).
“When you hug someone, you learn something else about them” (p84).
“But lying in bed just before going to sleep is the worst time for organized thinking” (p85).
“…I guess homesickness is like sucking your thumb. It’s what happened when you’re not very sure of yourself” (p86).
“You’re never satisfied, Claude. If you get all A’s, you wonder where are the pluses. You start out just running away, and you end up wanting to know everything” (p120).
“You must admit, Saxonberg, that when the need arises, I have a finely developed sense of theatrics” (p127).
“The adventure is over. Everything get over, and nothing is ever enough. Except the part you carry with you” (p140).
“Happiness is excitement that has found a settling-down place, but there is always a little corner that keeps flapping around” (p151).
“But you should also have days when you allow what is already in you to swell up inside of you until it touches everything” (p153).
“When one is eighty-two years old, one doesn’t have to learn one new thing every day, and one knows that some things are impossible” (p153).