Friday, August 16, 2013

From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler written and illustrated by E.L. Konigsburg (1967)

Do kids still read this book?  I'm not even sure why I read this book as a kid.    It's about an old lady and an art museum, which on face value don't seem all that exciting or interesting.

All ladies of a certain age from
from NYC and surround look like this to
me in my head.
I probably read this book first when I was 10 or 11.  Reading it now, as a grown up, I was (pleasantly) surprised at how tough a read it is.  But then some things haven't changed - I think Harry Potter and Neil Gaiman are also exquisitely "tough reads" as well, and good for them.  Maybe that was the appeal for me.  It was full of strange words and a completely new world.  Could there have been two more different worlds than 1967 Connecticut/New York City and 1980 pre-cable television Kansas:

School Bus!

  • Claudia and Jamie ride a school bus to school every day.  (we rode buses on field trips only)
  • They took a train into New York City, and then to see Mrs. Frankweiler. (a train went through my home town several times a day, but we never rode it, although I was probably aware   that people traveled on trains, it was still a foreign concept).
  • They ate an an "automat."  I know what that is now; I have no idea what I thought that was back then.  
  • Their grandfather was a "tax attorney."  How the hell did  I know that was?  
  • Their mother played "Mah Jong;" I probably didn't know what that was, but my mother played cards, so I probably assumed it was something like my mother's card club.  

Maybe it was appealing because the whole idea of running away was appealing.  And the book makes running away seem like a fun adventure.  It's kind of like the Boxcar Children living in a boxcar in the first book in that series.  Who wouldn't want to live in that kind of boxcar, which sounded so comfortable and homey and fun.  The reality of orphans living in a boxcar is a horrible, horrid thought.  The reality of running away isn't so pleasant to think about for a 12 year old girl and her 9 year old brother.  But the idea of running away to someplace new, different, exciting, intellectual, cultural - away - I bet that was heady stuff when I was 10 years old.  It still kind of is.

I don't recall loving this as well as the other one with the equally long title, the girls studying to be witches.  Must re-read that one next!
I was scandalized by this picture as a 10 year old.  They are NAKED! Oh my!

One thing I have to admit, near the bottom - I wept during the last chapters of this book.  I think I know why.  That overwhelming feeling of nostalgia that I suffer from constantly, missing people and things of the past, and being vaguely uncomfortable with the now.  That whole idea from Wordsworth "the world is too much with us."  I miss the past, and for many reasons, some tangible and some not, this book represents the past.  

Let's say E.L. Konigsberg (who always looks like Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler in my head) starting writing this book in 1965 or 1966 - we'll give her two years to write it.  That means Claudia Kincaid is now 60 years old; Jamie Kincaid is 57.  Kevin "Brat" Kincaid is 54 - he's about the same age as Madonna!

Ugh, another quick thought.  I probably read this for the first time in 1980; if it was published in 1967, that means 13 years.  1980 and 1967 were very different, especially in my 10 year old head.  1967 would have seemed like the time of the dinosaurs.  Of course, do that same math today, and a 10 year old would be reading a book published in - the year 2000.  Which seems like a flash in the pan to me, not so long ago...

My rating: 5 of 5 stars
This book on its face value is about an old lady and a museum.  Even when I read it way back when for the first time, 1967 was as distant and unfamiliar as the time of the dinosaurs (it must seem like the Big Bang to 10 year olds today).  And it's a really tough read, full of hard to understand words and concepts (A quick glance back at the book reveals a few:  Marijuana.  Tax attorney.  Fiscal week.  Chock Full O'Nuts.).  Yet, for all that, I loved this book as a kid, and re-reading it as a 43 year old man hasn't lessened my opinion of it one bit.  It's a wonderfully funny, brilliant piece of children's literature, almost perfectly written, with characters that seem as real and alive almost (but not quite!) 50 years later.  The first time I visited New York City, one of my must-sees wasn't seeing the Statue of Liberty or the Empire State Building - it was seeing the Egyptian Wing a the Metropolitan Museum of Art where Jamie's class almost caught the runaways!  So do kids continue to read, and love, and appreciate this "angel" of a book? I hope so.  I hope it's encouraging kids to "run away" - in their heads at least - and dream of other places and bigger things.  I know that's what it did for me.  

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for reminding me about this book. Beautifully written post. You brought back the exact feelings I had when I read it as a kid.


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