Monday, October 24, 2011

Book Review: From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, by E.L. Konigsberg (Athenum Press, 1967)

Recommended for ages 9-12

Another one of my favorite childhood books, this Newbery Medal Award winner gave me dreams of running away to live in the American Museum of Natural History when I was younger. I know that the characters in the book run away to the Met, but I wanted to be around the dinosaurs.

Claudia is a precocious 11-year old living in Connecticut. She's bored. She feels unappreciated by her family. She decides to teach everyone a lesson by running away, but she does not do things on the spur of the moment. She plans it out - it's her favorite part of the whole process. She invites her 9-year old brother, Jamie, to come along, because he's the money man. He saves his money and he gambles (and cheats) to make more.

The two run away and spend a week living in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Here, the novel details their complex hiding arrangements and their food budgeting. They bathe in the fountain and pick up some extra money while doing so (from the coins thrown in during the day) and do their laundry at a local laundromat.

Claudia also decides that she and Jamie will learn something every day they are there, and eventually happen upon a new exhibit of a statue, Angel, that may or may not be one of Michelangelo's earlier pieces. Claudia becomes focused on solving the mystery of Angel's origin, saying she cannot go home until she has figured it out. She does not want to be the same girl that left.

Their search for information takes them all the way to the statue's previous owner, Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, a wealthy widow living in Connecticut. She manages to get the children to tell her where they have been for the past week, and offers them, in return for their story, an hour in her file room where the secret to the statue lives; they are then driven home by her chauffer.

This story does not age. Parts of it may - maybe an 11- and 9-year old wandering the streets of New York City sounds riskier in this day and age - but it is, at heart, a child's fantasy. What preteen hasn't felt unappreciated by his or her family and dreamed of running away? This is a New York adventure that boys and girls alike should read and enjoy. Konigsburg does not speak down to her audience; rather, she illustrates how mature these children are in the decisions they make: they have a budget to stick to; they take care of themselves by bathing and doing their laundry; they strive to learn something new despite not being in school.

E.L. Konigsburg received Newbery Medals for From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler and The View from Saturday; she also received Newbery Honors for Jennifer, Hecate, Macbeth, William McKinley, and Me, Elizabeth. There is a wealth of information about the book online, including discussion guides through Scholastic and the Wake County Library system.

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