Friday, December 2, 2011

From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler - E. L. Konigsburg

I picked up From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler hoping to revisit it as an adult since it was a book I enjoyed as a child. This is not something I normally do – even during my stint as a middle school English teacher I balked at reading YA lit, because I really want the stuff I read to have, like, uh…sex. And also cursing. And oh yeah, literary complexity, too.

Anyhoo, I remembered loving this book and have recommended it to everyone, for as long as I can recall. (Do you do that? Read something, love it, and suggest it over and over again – until you get to the point that you no longer even remember what it’s about or why you’re recommending it? I do, and this has backfired mightily – Pat Conroy’s Beach Music, for example. Yikes.) But I guess everyone loved it; Mixed-Up Files was published in 1967, won the Newbery Medal in 1968, and remains a classic today.

But oh, I am so very glad I read this one again. Almost every other page, I would have to put the book down and exclaim to my husband, “LISTEN! Listen to how great this is!” and then proceed, ecstatically, to read him an out-of-context passage meaningful only to me, to which he would listen patiently and reply, “That’s really neat, honey,” and then return, glazed expression intact, to whatever he was doing on his computer…AND THIS IS WHY I NEED A BLOG. But really, the book is beautiful, and I loved revisiting it and remembering why it was originally so meaningful to me.

(An aside about my beloved husband, Mike. While he is wonderful and supportive and amazing, he is definitely NOT a reader. Mike is brilliant, and an intellectual, but he does not read actual books. He reads technical manuals, and then he fiddles with his computer, and then he builds things. Like, out of wood, with tools that are very loud. Just so you’ll know what I’m dealing with, on the home front.)

So here’s why I love Mixed-Up Files. First of all, I don’t think that there is a cooler premise in all of literature, really – two suburban kids decide to run away in search of adventure and choose to live in NYC’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. (IS THAT NOT THE BEST THING YOU’VE EVER HEARD?!?) They hide out in the stalls at closing time, bathe in the fountain, and eventually involve themselves in solving a mystery (complete with a treasure hunt at the end! Oh, the joy! The rapture!), which is where the elusive Mrs. Frankweiler comes into play. But what is important to me personally about the book is this: I think that Mixed-Up Files was the first book I ever read that inspired me to really travel, as a child – something that remains a passion in my life today. It made me realize, Hey. I could go to New York too. I could go anywhere. And though I didn’t get there until adulthood (NYC being a bit of a trek from rural Oklahoma; also I had two younger brothers who consistently won the summer vacation-destination vote with the obligatory interminable station wagon road-trip/amusement park/pro-sports game combo), this book ignited my imagination and made far-off places possible and real. Actual. And somehow, mine.

But back to Konigsburg. Mixed-Up Files is about growing up – a coming-of-age story, in keeping with the journey-book genre. Claudia (the older of the two siblings) is obsessed with the idea of coming home from the adventure “different” than when she left. By the end, she begins to realize that what she craves are life experiences that will shape her as she grows. One of my favorite quotes reads:

The adventure is over. Everything gets over, and nothing is ever enough. Except the part you carry with you. It’s the same as going on a vacation. Some people spend all their time on a vacation taking pictures so that when they get home they can show their friends evidence that they had a good time. They don’t pause to let the vacation enter inside of them and take that home.

When I look back through my life I realize that at many of my most pivotal moments – like when I traveled overseas for the first time alone, or when that pregnancy test showed two lines, or even when my mother died – I have no visual record, no pictures. What is left in the wake of these things, both the good and the bad, are core changes to my character and my point of view. What is heroic about Claudia is that she realizes that she craves this kind of depth and goes out in search of it. Ultimately, this is why From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler is valuable and lasting, and why I think everyone, especially kids, should read it – because it empowers the reader to explore, to look beyond day-to-day life and reach for something else. Really, could a book do anything more important?


  1. Ahh, I vaguely remember reading this as a kid, but now I definitely want to re-read. What a great review! Can't wait until my kids are old enough to read it too.

    And I love your blog!

  2. I LOVE IT. I was brought to tears. Amazing! I especially loved the part about recommending books for years and then realizing, "Wait, why did I love that book? Did I even read that book?". Totally guilty of this. Sarah, I cannot wait to triple like on FB.

  3. I agree with Jenny. I have recommended books only to realize that I had read them such a long time ago and possibly they are not as good as I remember. Put another way; I've recently tasted a Now and Later candy. They were my favorite as a kid, but now um, yuck. Glad to hear that this book still rocks. Read on, my friend, read on!