From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler
by E.L. Konigsburg
When I was a kid one of my favorite movies was called The Hideaways. It played regularly on cable and when it was on I would watch it with keen interest not on the story of a girl and her brother who decide to run away from home and hide out for several days in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I didn’t remember much else about the movie except for this. I got an early introduction to New York through that movie, and an early fascination with hiding and planning and discovering that we all have secrets that we keep.
Until now, though, I’d never read the book on which the movie was based. One of the joys of volunteering in my daughter’s elementary school library once a week is being introduced to some great books for kids, books I never experienced when I was little except perhaps through their film adaptations. (Escape to Witch Mountain is another of my favorites, and I still haven’t read that book.)
Oh, the magic of books. This one holds all the joy and excitement I felt when I watched those siblings flee their home and escape into the wonders of the Met. The novel opens with a letter from a Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler to her lawyer, “Saxonberg,” and acts as an explanation as to why Mrs. Frankweiler has decided to amend her will. She narrates the novel, with occasional parenthetical asides to her attorney-reader, from the point-of-view of the two children, Claudia and Jamie Kincaid.
Claudia Kincaid, feeling unappreciated at home, hatches a plan to run away from home. She chooses her brother, Jamie, to accompany her because he is better with money than her and she needs him to fund the adventure. He agrees immediately—what boy isn’t always up for adventure?—and the next day they set off straight after school.
Their destination is the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City where Claudia feels certain they can hide away for as long as they want. As a kid, this is the part of the book that is most exciting. What kid wouldn’t want to sneak into a museum like that, spend the night under cover of secret darkness? They hide in the bathroom after closing with their feet on the toilets in a closed stall so the guards won’t find them when they look under the doors; they sleep in one of the many large, cozy beds on exhibit; they bathe in the fountain and use the coins they found there for money; and they blend in with school groups on tours of the museum both to learn something every day and to save money on food when the group gets lunch.
Here’s the part of the story I didn’t remember, and the part that for me gave the book a added freshness to the nostalgia of living such an adventure. While in the museum the kids discover a statue of an angel that was purchased from Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler at auction for a paltry sum of $225. The statue may or may not have been carved by Michaelangelo himself, but the museum has no evidence to support the claim. Claudia makes it their mission to find out. They examine the statue, and research Michaelangelo at a library. When they make what they think is a remarkable discovery they write a letter to the museum, only to rebuffed for having discovered something that was already known.
Jamie wants to go back home, but Claudia cannot. For her running away wasn’t just about running away. She didn’t just feel unappreciated at home, but she felt un-special, un-unique, and what she wanted more than anything was to go back home feeling somehow different. What kid doesn’t want to feel different, feel unique, feel special, not in the eyes of the world, but in their own eyes? In their own mind?
It is during this moment of despair that Claudia hits upon the idea of visiting Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler herself. After all, if anyone knows the truth about the statue it would be her. Which is where our narrator and title character comes in, and we learn about her “mixed-up files.” Claudia learns the secret to the statue, and while she wants to share it with the museum and the world, Mrs. Frankweiler convinces her otherwise. She tells Claudia that it is the secrecy that she wanted. Knowing something that no one else knows, that is something that can make a person different.
Reading this book was like rediscovering the child in me that always wanted the same thing, that always wanted to be different. That wanted to plan and execute my own little adventure. I used to pretend that my bedroom, and its attached bath, was my own little secret hideaway, my museum. That I was off on my own little adventure. When I grew up I took my adventure all the way to New York, and sometimes I still dream of taking a bath in that fountain. I may have only one secret left him me, my secret to a happy life: recognizing that each of us is different, each of us is unique.
A side bit of history about Konigsburg: she is the only author to have two books in the final running for the Newberry Honor. In 1968, “Mixed-Up Files” won the award, and her first book, Jennifer, Hecate, Macbeth, William McKinley, and Me, Elizabeth, was also a finalist.