From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L. Konigsburg. When I think back on my childhood, this is one of those titles that stands well outside the pack, a shimmering bit of perfection that I think I realized, even then, was the kind of book that stood the test of time. It's most definitely the first book that I remember finishing, putting down, then picking back up almost right away to reread.
That scene is vividly imprinted on my memory - a dreary summer afternoon, a colander full of green grapes to snack on, sitting on my bedroom floor listening to the rain drum on the roof and reading about Claudia and Jamie. I had heard about the book from my older sister, who mentioned offhand once that she read it when she was about my age and really enjoyed it. That was all the convincing it took for me to seek it out during my regular visit to the bookmobile. Right from the beginning it was evident that Claudia was pretty much my literary soul mate. This sentence was all it took: "She was bored with simply being straight-A's Claudia Kincaid." I sat up straighter and began to concentrate on every word after that.
Claudia, you see, has decided that in order for her family to fully appreciate her, she must run away. But she does not want to just take off - no, Claudia is not nearly that impulsive. Instead she crafts a plan wherein she and her middle brother Jamie will run away to the most hospitable and inspiring place she can think of: the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It's a good plan, and one that Claudia and Jamie manage to carry out with a relatively small incidence of peril. But soon the siblings find that they have run right into a bit of a mystery, concerning a small statuette recently acquired from the enigmatic Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, which may or may not be the work of Michelangelo. Claudia and Jamie begin to investigate, and their search for the truth leads them straight to the very last place two runaway children may have expected to find themselves.
Quite simply, From the Mixed-Up Files has it all: familiar but not derivative characters, a crisply believable plot, some mystery, some humor, and a wholly original setting. It is firmly set within a specific era and yet has the whiff of timelessness about it, the kind of book that though the details may change (train fare for $1.60? hot fudge sundaes for $.40?) will still be relatable for readers for decades to come. Even to a child like me, for whom New York City was about as far away as the moon in relation to my real life, the adventures of Claudia and Jamie felt immediate and tangible. I could see myself hiding in that bathroom stall waiting for the guard to pass, or hiding my violin case in a sarcophagus (never mind that I never played a musical instrument). And that, dear reader, is what makes something a classic - the fact that though the world in which it was set may seem lightyears away from our modern age, the story still feels fresh and current, like it really could happen to you or someone you know.
E.L. Konigsburg had her first two books published in 1967, this and Jennifer, Hecate, Macbeth, William McKinley and Me, Elizabeth. Both were nominated for the Newbery in 1968, and she took the award for From the Mixed-Up Files and the Honor for Jennifer (the only person to have won both the award and the honor in the same year). Starting a career out like that had to have been more than a little daunting -- how do you follow up such huge success -- but Konigsburg has maintained a long and distinguished track record of publishing amazing literature for children. What I think has made her so successful is the fact that she never writes "down to" her audience. Konigsburg's characters, Claudia and Jamie included, tackle some very real problems, experience deep emotions and grapple with the larger stuff of life. And yet there's always humor, always lightness to cut the gravity.
If you've never read a Konigsburg novel, From the Mixed-Up Files is a great place to start. It still rings as true for me as the day I first read it, so long ago, and I hope that one day Sprout feels the same.
Wayback Wednesday verdict? Quiet adventure that still resonates
From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E. L. Konisburg, published by Simon & Schuster
Source: personal collection
Sample: "What happened was: they became a team, a family of two. There had been times before they ran away when they had acted like a team, but those were very different from feeling like a team. Becoming a team didn't mean the end of their arguments. But it did mean that the arguments became a part of the adventure, became discussions not threats."