Top 100 Children’s Novels (#5)
#5 From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E. L. Konigsburg (1967)
(#1)(#1)(#1)(#1)(#1)(#1) (#1)(#1)(#1)(#2)(#2)(#2) (#2)(#3)(#3)(#3)(#3)(#3) (#3)(#3)(#3)(#4)(#4)(#4) (#4)(#4)(#4)(#4)(#4)(#4) (#4)(#4)(#5)(#5)(#5)(#5) (#5)(#5)(#5)(#5)(#6)(#6) (#6)(#6)(#6)(#6)(#6)(#7) (#7)(#7)(#7)(#7)(#7)(#8) (#8)(#8)(#8)(#9)(#9)(#9) (#9)(#9)(#9)(#9)(#9)(#9) (#9)(#10)(#10)(#10) – 409 points
Ahh, yes. The book that has warped the way I view museums forevermore. Now when I look at rare antique furniture, I think “would that be a good place to sleep?” and fountains are often eyed as potential sources of income. Bathrooms? Completely and thoroughly judged for their ability to hide me from security staff. Look at what you’ve done, Ms. Konigsburg. Look and despair. – Brooke Shirts (Casa Camisas)
Quite simply, the best adventure story I ever read. I can still taste Claudia’s hot fudge sundaes, can still see the black bathtub in Mrs. Frankweiler’s house and still feel the joy when Claudia and Jamie find the correct file. – Cathy Berner, Children’s/Young Adult Specialist and Events Coordinator, Blue Willow Bookshop in Houston, Texas
This book, along with Trixie Belden and the Mystery of the Blinking Eye, brought Manhattan to my Portland, Oregon childhood. – Laurie Amster-Burton (Six Boxes of Books)
I read this book over and over as a child, longing to have such a beautiful, artistic and literary adventure. What child doesn’t want to identify with smart and sassy Claudia who takes control and chooses her own adventure? Running away to the Met will always be in the back of my head as a last resort, thanks to this book. – Kristen Marie Stewart
As a child reading this book, I wanted to BE Claudia and follow in her footsteps. As an adult, I empathize with her and marvel at the human connections Konigsburg renders so brilliantly. – Tanya (books4yourkids.com)
The first time I wrote to an author and she wrote back. We’ve been pals ever since. And who didn’t want to stow away in the museum? – Schuyler Hooke
When I had the kids read this book as part of my library bookgroup I told them all about automats. They were enthralled. Word on the street is that there’s one operating automat in town somewhere. We should take a field trip or something.
The synopsis from the book itself reads, "Claudia knew that she could never pull off the old-fashioned kind of running away . . . so she decided to run not from somewhere but to somewhere – somewhere large, warm, comfortable, and beautiful. And that was how Claudia and her brother, Jamie, ended up living in the Metropolitan Museum of Art – and right in the middle of a mystery that made headlines."
Origins. According to Perry Nodelman in American Writers for Children Since 1960: Fiction, "Konigsburg has said the book originated at a family picnic in Yellowstone National Park, during which her children complained about everything they could think of: ‘I realized that if my children ever left home, they would never revert to barbarism. They would carry with them all the fussiness and tidiness of suburban life. Where could they go…? Maybe they could find some way to live with caution and compulsiveness and still satisfy their need for adventure’." I love that quote. It sort of allows the entire book to make sense to me.
Anita Silvey in 100 Best Books for Children adds in some other pertinent details. "In 1965 she read in the New York Times about the purchase of a statue by the Metropolitan Museum of Art – The Lady with the Primroses, possibly the work of Leonardo da Vinci." The characters of Claudia and Jamie were also based on her own kids.
In terms of the book, Nodelman quotes John Rowe Townsend who says, "The fact that Mrs. Frankweiler narrates the whole story, which she herself does not enter until near the end, seems to me to be a major flaw." Nodelman adds, "indeed, the biggest question about this novel is why Mrs. Frankweiler is in it at all. But it is Mrs. Frankweiler’s presence in the book that allows it to be more than lightweight."
Pop Quiz Hotshots: What do the E. and the L. in E.L. Konigsburg’s name stand for? You have until the end of this post to answer correctly. Tick… tick… tick…
When asked in an interview in the February 1986 edition of Language Arts how she crafts her stories, Ms. Konigsburg had this to say: "Somewhere in the course of writing the characters take over and often begin writing their own dialogue. I remember very well writing From the Mixed–Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler up to the point at which Claudia and Jamie go to Mrs. Frankweiler‘s house, and Claudia excuses herself to wash up before lunch, and she sees that marvelous black marble bathtub; I didn’t know until Claudia was in the bathroom that she was actually going to take a bath in that bathtub; it’s telling myself the story as I’m telling it to others. That’s a kind of magic that happens when your characters become so alive that you write something, and review it the next day and you think, ‘Oh, did I write that?’ It’s almost as if you’re a conduit for what’s happening."
Personally, I was very pleased indeed to read the book and find that the library Claudia visited when she and Jamie need to do some research was the then new Donnell Library on 53rd between 5th and 6th Avenue. I used to work there. At the time the book came out New York Public Library’s Central Children’s Room had not yet moved to that location (they would do so in 1970). Now the library is gone, but it lives on in Claudia’s research. Personally, my associations with the Metropolitan Museum of Art, however, are tied far closer to Sesame Street Visits the Museum rather than this book.
The book won a Newbery Award in 1968, beating out The Black Pearl by Scott O’Dell, The Fearsome Inn by Isaac Bashevis Singer, The Egypt Game by Zilpha Keatley Snyder (#100 on the poll), and (amazingly enough) fellow E.L. Konigsburg title (and her first novel) Jennifer, Hecate, Macbeth, William McKinley, and Me, Elizabeth. That was a good year for her. Indeed, Frankweiler was published just a few months after Jennifer. Nodelman says, "The Newbery list has not included two books by the same author before or since." Imagine that pressure. Your first two books win both a Newbery and a Newbery Honor. It’s amazing she ever managed to write anything again! Weaker souls would have crumbled under the pressure (and indeed book #3, About the B’Nai Bagels, received some criticism for not living up to its predecessors).
Perhaps there is lots of art based on this book out there, but my heart belongs to this image from artist Phil McAndrews. As you can see, it’s from the beginning of the book when Claudia is attempting to convince Jamie of her brilliant plan.
Of all the books on this Top 100, this one has probably had the strangest incremental changes made to its jackets. At the beginning of this post you can see the original cover, illustrated by Ms. Konigsburg herself. Is it just me, or did authors do their own covers a lot more in the past? The Giver. Harriet the Spy. The Hobbit. Now this. Maybe that’s the secret to attaining "classic" status, folks. Konigsburg’s publishers have always been loath to let go of the original image. It leads to some interesting changes. Watch the slow process of updating. First the kids became real and then . . . :
It’s easy to forget about the film. For one thing, the original unwieldy title would never have fit on a marquee, so they renamed it The Hideaways. Ingrid Bergman played Mrs. Frankweiler. I admit that I was a little surprised to see that the trailer was available on YouTube.
It has also been referenced in films like The Royal Tenenbaums. Wes Anderson has since said that this scene is a direct homage. You can find it at 3:40 in this clip.
Answer to the Quiz Question: The E.L. stands for Elaine Lobl.
Filed under: Top 100 Children's Novels (2010)
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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