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February 15, 2018 BOOKLIST
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When From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, published by Atheneum in 1967, received the 1968 Newbery Medal, author E. L. Konigsburg, a chemist and mother of three, hung up her lab coat and launched a long career writing novels for children. Though her first book, Jennifer, Hecate, Macbeth, William McKinley and Me, Elizabeth was named a 1968 Newbery Honor Book, it is Frankweiler that continues to occupy a special place in the hearts and minds of young readers a half of a century after it was published.
The story, for those of you who need a refresher, starts when the almost-12-year-old Claudia, the oldest of four children, feels unappreciated. The surefire way to solve her problem is to run away, but she needs a sidekick. She chooses her 9-year-old brother, Jamie, because he is “adventurous” and “rich,” while she is extremely “cautious” and “poor.”
Together they count Jamie’s money—spare change earned by playing cards on the school bus—and determine that there is enough for food, even train fare if they don’t travel too far. Then they pack a few personal items (toothbrushes, clean underwear, etc.) into their musical-instrument cases and leave their Greenwich, Connecticut, home.
Claudia decides their final destination must be somewhere comfortable and grand, because she simply can’t tolerate discomfort. They settle upon the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in New York City, where they easily fade into the crowd of school groups touring the museum. At night, they hide in the restrooms (feet up) until the guards disappear, and then they brush their teeth, put on their pajamas, and crawl into an elegant bed in the Renaissance Room.
There an angel statue that some scholars believe was created by Michelangelo intrigues Claudia. She and Jamie go to the public library and study art books in search of a clue about the statue and its origin. An article in the New York Times leads them to the titular Mrs. Frankweiler, the donor who surely holds the truth about the statue’s creator.
I first met Konigsburg 10 years after she burst onto the children’s book scene, and we remained friends until her death, in 2013. This I know: she didn’t especially like children, but she really loved writing for them.
In Frankweiler, she appealed to her readers’ intelligence (see Claudia’s desire to learn something new each day) and called upon their imaginations to unlock a complicated plot (the origin of the statue) and multilayered themes (family, survival, hope, and truth). She gave them independent main characters (Claudia and Jamie maneuver the city with relative ease) with both recognizable problems (the desire to be appreciated and comfortable) and fulfilling solutions (they come home different on the inside). She offered them a fascinating and unique setting (an art museum bustling by day and quiet and mysterious by night) and a sophisticated point of view (Mrs. Frankweiler is telling the whole story to her lawyer, Saxonberg, who turns out to be the children’s grandfather).
Konigsburg once told me, upon the celebration of a milestone birthday, that she hated “assigning a number” to her name. I’m quite certain, however, that she would adore the number 50 that is now attached to From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. Mazel tov, Claudia, Jamie, and Mrs. Frankweiler. You may be 50, but you are not yet—and never will be—old.
Pat Scales, the author of the revised edition of Books under Fire: A Hit List of Banned and Challenged Children’s Books (2014), recently received the honor of the
“Pat Scales Special Collections Room” opening at the University of Montevallo’s Carmichael Library.
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