In which Annie (high school teacher, mother of two young girls and a younger boy) and her aunt Deborah (children's bookseller, mother of two young women in their 20s) discuss children's books and come up with annotated lists.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Captured by the Mixed-Up Files

Dear Aunt Debbie, 

After spending much of last week trying to absorb the terrible news from Boston and the rest of the world without betraying too much of it to my kids, this week felt a little more normal.  I was saddened, however, to read of the death of E.L. Konigsburg, a favorite author of mine who we have somehow never written about here.

Konigsburg's best-known book, and certainly my favorite, is the Newbery-winning
From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler
.  I happen to have reread From the Mixed-Up Files a couple of weeks ago, when a lovely hardcover version of it arrived from friends as a big-sister present for Eleanor in a package for Will. I sat on the couch with Will napping and nursing on my lap and tore through it in one sitting. I'm looking forward to reading it to Eleanor soon.

It's the story of 11-year-old Claudia Kincaid and her 9-year-old brother Jamie, who run away from their home in Greenwich, CT to spend a week living in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Their adventure gains a bit of mystery when they become interested in a small statue of an angel which the Met has recently acquired, and try to figure out through their own research whether or not it was sculpted by Michelangelo. The story is introduced via a letter from Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler to her lawyer, Saxonberg, claiming authorship of the story, though it's unclear until close to the end of the book what her involvement with the Kincaid children is.

I'm sure I'm far from the only child who fantasized about following Claudia and Jamie's footsteps.  It's not a romantic vision of running away, exactly, though Claudia would like it to be so -- there are too many little difficult details for it to feel easy or comfortable.  But such indelible images: the kids bathing in the restaurant fountain at night and discovering coins underfoot to supplement their savings, hiding in bathroom stalls at closing time  by standing up on the toilet seats so their feet won't show, stashing Claudia's violin case filled with clothes in an empty sarcophagus.

While a number of details in the real-life museum have changed since the book was published in 1967 (the Met helpfully provides a children's guide here), and there are no Automats left in New York to eat in or stores with typewriter displays on their sidewalks, the story doesn't feel dated. Claudia and Jamie read like real kids, bickering a little, Claudia wanting very much to be in charge and to retain her romantic ideal of the adventure, Jamie far more focused on how much money they're spending (most of it is his, won by gambling at cards on the school bus). As the older sister of a younger brother, I recognized their dynamic early on.  The book wears well.

E.L. Konigsburg was a genius with odd titles: Jennifer, Hecate, Macbeth, William McKinley, and Me, ElizabethFather's Arcane Daughter; and my second-favorite Konigsburg book, A Proud Taste for Scarlet and Miniver.  The last is a story about Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine, narrated in the afterlife -- Eleanor is in heaven, waiting for the judgment of her second husband, Henry II, to see if he'll join her.  It's an interesting and somewhat challenging conceit for YA historical fiction.  I loved it.

It's hard not to imagine Konigsburg herself as a little like Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler: a connoisseur of fine art and experiences, attuned to people but possessing her own indomitable voice.  She will be missed.

Love, Annie

P.S. On another note, have you seen this lovely piece in the NYT about a father packing away his favorite children's books?  Some gems here, and beautifully written.


  1. As a child who discovered Konigsburg in the mid-to-late '90s, The View from Saturday has long been my second-favorite of her novels, occasionally slipping into top position. At once accessible and complex, eminently relatable but filled with puzzles, connections, and twist, it is a book I have never tired of re-reading, right up to last May during school move-out when I saw a copy in the donation bin and spent the afternoon devouring it. Konigsburg writes both for children and for all, about children and about so much more; the world has lost a great voice.

  2. Last year, I re-listened to From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler -- Jill Clayburgh's 2009 recording, with an appropriately crotchety old woman's voice. Oddly, I had let the sibling bickering fade from memory; it's so hilarious, especially the heated attacks on each other's grammar. Such a delightful book all around. It occupies a permanent face-out spot on our store shelves. She will be missed.