Monday, May 7, 2007

From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler

Konigsburg, E. (1967). From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. Aladdin.

Newbery Medal Winner - 1968

I did read this book as an elementary student many years ago, but it was a chapter book that I didn’t remember too much about the story line beyond the very generalities of two kids being in a museum at night in New York City, figuring out a mystery. I wanted to revisit this book, because I feel like I couldn’t really say I’ve read it if it’s been over 20 years ago and wasn’t at the time one of my favorites which I read more than once. Upon my rereading, I see as an adult how smartly woven this tale is and why it was awarded the Newbery. The story makes the reader think, and expects the reader to intelligently use inference in abundance while retaining facts and clues all along the way. I liked that challenge as a child, and I find that very appealing to read as an adult.

After reading it as an adult, and a teacher with a critical eye of a reviewer and appreciator of children’s literature, part of me wonders why I didn’t read this book more than once as a child. I do connect some aspects of this book to Harriet the Spy, which I read a year or two later as a child. I read Harriet several times, each time with relish about Harriet’s cunning smarts and sneaky ways, doing her own thing independently and smartly, spying on others. As with most kids, reading about children who have adult abilities and opportunities of freedom real kids do not really get is inciting and interesting. Children read books like these almost as field guides, if they find that aspect of a storyline intriguing.

The story involves a women named Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler telling the story of two children, Claudia and Jamie, to her lawyer, whom she calls Saxonberg. The book starts out with a letter to him, and then the story proceeds with Mrs. Frankweiler being the narrator, occasionally dotting the story with her insights which are written within parentheses, almost whispering on the side while pushing a pause button to the story. One keen example is:
(p. 14) “(Flattery is as important a machine as the lever, isn’t it, Saxonberg? Give it a proper place to rest, and it can move the world.)”

Claudia decides to sneak off for an adventure in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in the city they live in of New York, where there are throngs of people and it’s easy to blend in. She reels in her brother Jamie as her sidekick, and they stay overnight, hidden within the museum for a week. While there, she begins to work on solving the origins of an angel statue that is instigated by her own curiosity. After much investigative work, they figure out who was the former owner who donated the statue, none other than Mrs. Frankweiler, and so they go to pay her a visit. There in her house is where she allows them to go through her “mixed up files” in numerous cabinets to put together the answer to the mystery. I liked how Mrs. Frankweiler describes her house, and I can smell the stuffiness of a big antique shop as I read it: “(The house is) filled with antique air. Well, when a house is as old as mine, you can expect everything in it to be thickened by time. Even the air.” (p. 126)

Konigsburg is also well versed in crafting descriptive language to enhance the reader’s visualizations and comprehension of the events unfolding. One example that was initially striking was when she was describing the temporarily grumpy look of Jamie, Claudia’s brother and accomplice in the story:
(p. 11-13) “He sat slumped in his seat with his lips pooched out and his eyebrows pulled down on top of his eyes. He looked like a miniature, clean shaven Neanderthal man.”
(p. 22) “ Claudia saw then that his pockets were so heavy they were pulling his pants down. There was a gap of an inch and a half between the bottom hem of his shirt and the top of his pants. A line of winter white skin was punctuated by his navel.”
(p.103) “Claudia’s whisper began to sound like cold water hitting a hot frying pan.”

The particular edition of the book I read from was a “35th Anniversary” edition, which meant that Konigsburg included a modern afterward to the story. I always find introductions, forewards, prefaces, author’s notes, and afterwards intriguing because they always help me enhance my background knowledge and understandings as I digest a story in the end. They can also serve as backstage passes to understanding the author’s purpose and motivations, which can be inspiring to the reader as a writer. Even getting to see a copy of Konigsburg’s acceptance letter from the book company is a rare glimpse into the official life of a famous writer. I loved rekindling my love with this book from my childhood!

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