From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs Basil E Frankweiler written and illustrated by the amazingly gifted EL Konigsburg is the stand-out book from my childhood. It is the book that left a lasting impression on me as an eleven year old and sparked (or maybe fueled an already existing) love for stories that unfold in and are shaped by New York City. I am sure this explains my adolescent obsession with JD Salinger and the handful of books he authored. Or, maybe this fascination really begins with my father, who grew up on Long Island and, when I pried hard enough, would tell me a little bit about his childhood there and visits to NYC. As a fourth generation (Southern) Californian, this all sounded so exotic, enthralling, intellectual and arty to me as a child. After all, Claudia decided to run away to it because it was "elegant; it was important; and busy." I don't know if I was thoughtful enough to long for an experience that would leave me different the way Claudia Kincaid did, but I was restless and anxious enough for new experiences and also always looking for a way to stand out among my peers, so much so that I was intrigued by Claudia, Jamie and their adventure.
If Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone had be published when I was ten or eleven, I have no doubt that I would have been consumed with it (even more so than I am as an adult.) As it was, I was a reader in a world of children's literature where there were no series that told one story over the course of several books. That's not entirely true. I read the superb, semi-autobiographical Great Brain (sorry for the link to Wikipedia but it was the best reference I could find) series that I wish more people knew of and I began Madeleine L'Engle's Time Quartet that starts with A Wrinkle in Time, written in 1962 and winner of the Newbery Award the following year. And, while Meg Murry left a lasting impression on me with her mousy appearance and bad temper, unheard of in girl characters even thirty years ago, my parents weren't scientists and would never discover a tesseract that would carry me to different dimensions. But, like Claudia, there was a remote chance that I could run away and hide out in a museum. And I did have a younger brother who was stingy. While fantasy writing for children was mostly dormant during my childhood, the visits that Claudia and Jamie made to Horn and Hardart's Automat in NYC were as magical to me as anything found in Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry today. If you and your kids are interested in automats, visit this amazing site that is affiliated with Storycorps, an independent, non-profit project whose mission is to honor and celebrate one another's lives through listening and can be heard on nrp.org, to listen to a Sound Portrait of the last day of operation for Horn & Hardart's on April 9, 1991.
Reading and writing about this book today, I am tempted to label it a fantasy considering the ways in which our world has changed in the forty plus years since it was first published in 1967. If you have never read this book, I highly recommend you seek out the 35th Anniversary edition with an afterword (because, as she says, she never reads forwards until after she has finished reading a book) by EL Konigsburg reflecting upon the changes in the world and NYC since she wrote her book. There is also an interesting aside about an incident in 1995 that has amazing similarities to Konigsburg's book, written almost thirty years earlier. The basic plot of the story follows twelve-year old Claudia Kincaid who, feeling unappreciated and undervalued by her parents, decides to run away. Being a thoughtful, particular child with specific ideas about the ways in which things should be done, she decides to bring her nine-year old brother Jamie along because he "could be counted on to be quiet, and now and then he was good for a laugh. Besides, he was rich." Her meager allowance, one of her main reasons for running away, combined with her love of hot fudge sundaes, has left Claudia without the funds she needs to carry out her plan. Jamie is good at saving money and Claudia knows he will keep her from squandering their combined savings.
Claudia plans their adventure with an mature preciseness. She has thought through how the children will pack their supplies (instrument cases) where they will stay (the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which was free in 1967) and how they will go unnoticed while there (hide in the bathroom stalls - feet up - at opening and closing time and joining touring school groups during the day so as to go unnoticed while roaming the museum.) This in and of itself could take up 162 pages, but Konigsburg adds another layer to the story. While Claudia and Jamie are hiding out at the Met, a new exhibit draws record crowds. The museum has acquired at auction for the low, even in 1967, price of $225, a marble sculpture that may have been sculpted by Michelangelo. Claudia decides that solving the mystery of this statue, referred to as Angel, will be the thing that allows her to return home (because she knows from the start that she will be going home eventually) different and make her efforts worthwhile. That is where Mrs Basil E Frankweiler, previous owner of Angel, and her mixed-up files come in adding yet another layer and a twist to the story. I am almost 100% positive that I missed the nuances of this plot thread when I read the story as a child, but I enjoyed it immensely nonetheless. As an adult reader, the framework of the story, the narration of the events by Mrs Frankweiler and her frequent asides to her lawyer, Saxonberg, who, by the end of the story is revealed to be the grandfather of the missing Kincaid children, adds an emotional depth and richness to the story that makes it even more meaningful.
There is a really moving event near the end of the book that I won't reveal, but I will say that Konigsburg is brilliant at creating fully formed child characters. Reading as a child, Claudia did not seem real to me in the way that she reminded me of myself or one of my friends, but real in the way that she was like me, but a better me. I wanted to have her attention to detail, her grammatical knowledge that she was constantly wielding over her brother, her sense of self direction and her sense of importance. Both Jamie and Claudia seemed to see things and think about things in ways that seemed just that much better than what I was up to as eleven-year old and that is why, despite the uniquely creative story line, this book stuck with me as I grew.
EL Konigsburg has written sixteen novels, two of which are out of print, and two short story collections. I have read six of her books and plan to get busy reading and selling the rest. I think she may be the most prolific, talented writer of realistic fiction for kids and I hope she has a few more books in her because they keep getting better. Two other books of hers that center around works of art are The Outcasts of 19 Schuyler Place and the mysterious edge of the heroic world.
Other authors of late have begun taking up the "missing/mysterious work of art/artist" theme in one way or another. They include two fabulous books by Elise Broach, Masterpiece and Shakespeare's Secret. Blue Balliett has added to the genre with Chasing Vermeer, The Wright 3 and The Calder Game.