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Friday, August 2, 2013

From The Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler: The Favorite Book You Forgot

The conversation usually begins like this:

"Excuse me, Miss.  I'm looking for a book I read as a kid.  I really loved it but I can't remember the author or the title.  I just remember that it's about two kids who run away to live in a museum."

The book in question is of course, From The Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler written by the incomparable E.L. Konigsburg.  In 1968 this slender volume won the coveted Newbery Award.  It was equal parts childish rebellion, adventure and art history.  The fact that readers cannot remember the title or the author some 20, 30 or even 40 years after reading it is inconsequential. The title (while ridiculously fun to say) is undeniably long and just shy of cumbersome.  The author's name is perhaps equally difficult to remember if you aren't immersed in the world of kids lit.  But none of that matters.  It's the story that matters.  It's the story that leaves an indelible mark on the hearts and imaginations of young readers.  And From The Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler does just that. 

It is the tone of this novel that immediately sets it apart from every other kids book you have ever or will ever read. With unexpected acerbic wit and wry commentary Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler relates the story of the Kincaid children to her attorney whom we know only as Saxonberg.  She begins with Claudia, the eldest Kincaid child and only daughter, who after much planning and forethought decides to run away from home.  Claudia is attempting to escape the supreme injustices of her family position (i.e. doing the dishes and watching her youngest brother) and the boredom of living in a suburb of New York City.  She carefully chooses her destination - The Metropolitan Museum of Art (it is large, comfortable and beautiful) and her travelling companion - her second youngest brother Jamie (he is the richest of her brothers and owns a transistor radio) and sets out for the adventure of a lifetime.

What follows is a clever and funny portrait of a sister and brother surviving quite spectacularly on their own.  They travel, manage their funds and even do their own laundry on the streets of NYC.  They find food and shelter at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  They also discover a fantastic mystery involving the museum's newest acquisition, a sculpture of an angel that may or may not have been sculpted by Michelangelo. You cannot help but fall in love with Claudia, Jamie and indeed Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler.  It is a novel of family, of art, of history and of truly tremendous secrets.  There is little wonder that 40+ years after it's publication it remains one of the most beloved books you've ever forgotten. 

As a side note, E.L. Konigsburg won The Newbery twice.  She was only one of five authors to do so.  My personal connection to her goes beyond my childhood love affair with her books.  When she passed away this April it was at the same hospital where my kiddos were born.  So she has recently been on my mind and inspired me to re-read this classic.  I hope it will do the same for you and your children. 

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