It’s the book we all read and loved. It’s also the book with the long title that some can’t get right. You probably describe it like this:
“The book where the brother and sister run away from home and live in the Metropolitan Museum, and solve a mystery about a Michelangelo statue,” and then whomever you’re talking to says, “OOHH right right The Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Something. I LOVED that book, it was my favorite!” And then you say, “Me too!,” and after five more minutes of talking about something else—bam—you both remember the title perfectly, because nothing you love this much is ever really forgotten, no matter how long or complicated the name: From The Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E Frankweiler. By E.L. Konigsburg.
There is something very special about this book, and it’s not that these children achieve feats of wizardry or dragon taming, but that they do something dangerous, extraordinary and real. They run away from home to escape the mundane and to live in the most mysterious and ancient cathedral of learning: the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Here’s why every kid loves The Mixed-Up Files:
The protagonists have a sense of propriety. Claudia and Jamie don’t run away recklessly. They’re not Kevin McCallister types, flying by the seat of their pants. Their caper is methodical and planned to perfection. Claudia packs maps, a toothbrush, and a nightie. She makes sure they have clean underwear, and when they run out, they go to the laundromat and spend their precious coins to clean their clothes.
They try to solve a mystery. There is a statue of an angel that may or may not be a forgery, and suddenly Claudie and Jamie have a purpose: to find proof that Michelangelo sculpted it. The idea that only children could uncover what adults are too busy to notice is compelling; so is Claudia’s realization that tracing the provenance of the statue is actually far beyond her.
They get to hide out, sneak around, and touch stuff. If you were Claudia and Jamie, you’d know the schedule of the security guards, look at your watch a lot, like a spy does, slip past velvet ropes, and move in the shadows. Are you kidding? This is every kids’ dream! You’d also have a contingency plan if you got caught, something witty to say, or a rendezvous point at 0200 hours. The siblings even sleep in a giant four-poster bed with curtains. When you were a young visitor to a museum, how many times did you want to jump on a Marie Antoinette-style bed, look in the drawers of an 300-year-old desk, or trace the paint on a sarcophagus? Fantasy realized.
They’re never homesick. Not once do they feel regret for running away to the Met. There is a time Claudia wants to go home—but because she feels like a failure for not solving the mystery of Angel, not because she misses home. We are spared that scary feeling of homesickness and misgiving. It’s all about the now.
They self-finance their adventure: The entire trip is funded by Jamie’s gambling winnings: roughly $29 in nickles, pennies, and dimes. This is crazy, but also very entertaining, and a little stressful for the reader. The money weighs down Jamie’s pants, and every time the kids purchase food, we’re mentally doing the math to see how much money they have left. Suspense! Luckily the kids discover that their bath is a wishing fountain, and feel no qualms about scooping up the dough.
Grownups treat children like grownups: We can handle it! Thank you, Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler!
Thank you for this adventure, E.L. Konisburg. You will be missed.