Top 100 Children's Novels #7: From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler
#7 From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L. Konigsburg (1967)
A brother and sister run away to Metropolitan Museum of art in New York City. Is it plausible? Dude, you’re missing the point. For kids, this 1968 Newbery Medal winner is escapist fiction at its best. – Travis Jonker
I listened to this book on audiobook cassette every night for weeks in the fourth grade. I was too shy to run away to a museum, so I lived vicariously through Claudia and Jamie. Add in an art mystery? I was obsessed! This was also the first I learned the sad truth about movie adaptations. The made for TV movie came out a few years after I read the book and it failed miserably to meet my 13-year-old expectations. I cried so much after the movie aired and consoled myself in the book once again because the book was of course much better. – Sarah (Green Bean Teen Queen)
When I had the kids read this book as part of my library bookgroup I told them all about automats. They were enthralled. Now my library is opening an exhibit that will feature a real automat in the center of the exhibit space. I’m oddly excited about this.
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 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 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. I also love this one of hiding in the bathroom.
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 loathe 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 . . . :
Fascinating, eh? By the end they finally get inside the place. And then there was this other jacket:
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. Here’s a little clip:
Years later they’d remake the film, this time with Lauren Bacall. Ingrid Bergman, Lauren Bacall . . . apparently Mrs. Frankweiler is one hotsy totsy dame. I vote that they make her Isabella Rossellini next time around.
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 3:45 in this clip.
Answer to the Quiz Question: The E.L. stands for Elaine Lobl.
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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