My theory is that every kid loves a good running away story, because every kid – no matter how happy his situation – yearns to run away. My all-time favorite running away stories are My Side of the Mountain by Jean Craighead George, The Boxcar Children by Gertrude Chandler Warner, and From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. I heartily recommend all three for the young people in your lives, and for you, especially if you’ve never given them a whirl.
The Mixed-Up Files is the story of Claudia and her brother James. Claudia plans a runaway from her home in the suburbs, and chooses James from among her brothers because he’s good with money. Instead of running away to the wilderness like most kids, Claudia plans her escape to New York City: specifically, Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Konigsburg’s writing is brilliant. I appreciate it much more as an adult than I did when I was a child, but even then I sensed how perfect it really is. The story is narrated in the first person, by Mrs. Frankweiler. However, she doesn’t actually come into the story until almost the very end, so the writing is able to capture the personableness of a first-person narrative while retaining some third-person distance from the action. Mrs. Frankweiler is penning this story as a letter to her lawyer, Saxonburg, to “explain certain changes I want made in my last will and testament.”
I think that part of the reason that this is a perfect runaway tale is because throughout there is the question of “Why?” Claudia and James have a very nice home with perfectly nice parents and all of their needs – and most of their wants – met. Claudia herself isn’t exactly sure why she has planned this adventure, but there is a sense of not running away as much as running to – towards an attempt to find herself, to understand who she is. That attempt of learning to balance being different from everyone else while also wanting to fit in.
In the story, Claudia and James successfully hid in the Museum. The day after their arrival, the Museum puts its new status on display – a beautiful angel carved from white marble. The creator of the statue is unknown, but it is possible that it was made by Michelangelo. Discovering who carved Angel becomes Claudia’s new mission, and she and James work together to research and understand, and eventually end up on the doorstep of the woman who sold Angel: Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler.
This book, as I said, is brilliantly written. It is engaging and thoughtful, but fast-paced enough to keep younger readers intrigued. I first read this book when I was around Claudia’s age, and I loved it. My original edition has literally fallen into pieces (my mother’s name is written on the title page, as it was hers when she was a girl), so I bought another copy at Half-Price Books one day. Turns out that this edition is actually a 35th Anniversary edition with an afterword written by Konigsburg in 2007.
I was asked to write a foreword to this 35th anniversary edition of From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, but I myself never read forewords until after I’ve read the book, and then I read them only if I really liked the book and want to know something more. So instead of a foreword, I have written and afterword and hope that you are reading it now because you liked this book and want to know something more.
My sentiments, exactly, actually. Why are forewords even a thing?? They should basically always be afterwords.
At any rate, I love what she has to say about her story:
Angel became part of Claudia’s story about finding herself, about how the greatest adventure lies not in running away, but in looking inside, and the greatest discovery is not in finding out who made a statue but in finding out what makes you.
I think that I sensed this as a child. All three of my favorite runaway books touch on this concept, especially My Side of the Mountain – the idea that running away isn’t as important as understanding who you are. Sometimes you do need to get away from routine and regularity for that to happen, but if you aren’t open to learning about what makes you you, running away won’t change your circumstances. Claudia goes back home content, not because she ran away and came back, but because she learned something about herself, a secret that only she knows and understands, and now she is different.
This is a wonderful and perfect book – and, bonus, a fast read, too! I highly recommend this delightful story. 5/5