"I cannot sleep unless I am surrounded by books."

Borges

Friday, April 27, 2007

Reviewing the Classics of Kidlit - The Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler - Reviewed by Elizabeth Lund



The Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler
Author: E.L. Konisburg
Publisher: Atheneum
ISBN-10: 068985322X
ISBN-13: 978-0689853227


When I reread The Mixed-Up Files, I can hardly believe it was written in 1968. Though the amount of Claudia's allowance and the price of The New York Times reveal its age, few books from that era retain such a contemporary feel.

For those who aren't familiar with the book, The Mixed-Up Files is about Claudia and Jamie Kinkaid, two suburban siblings who, fed up with the rest of their family, run away to The Metropolitan Museum of Art. The adventure becomes a mystery when they become determined to discover the true origin of a statue named angel, reputed to be the work of Michelangelo. Claudia's careful planning makes their escape and survival plausible. Jamie's practical nature and eye-rolling attitude keep Claudia from getting too romantic. The siblings complement each other and form a partnership that is at first grudging, later affectionate, making this a book with both boy and girl appeal.

I still think this is a nearly perfect premise for a middle-grade novel. It may not grab immediate attention, but in its simple plot, there are elements to appeal to many different segments of child readers: mystery lovers, kids intrigued by the romance of big cities, kids who like art and museums (such kids exist; I was one of them), and the nearly universal appeal of a story about running away.

And yet The Mixed-Up Files is so much more than its plot. Konigsburg works philosophy into these pages: ideas about secrets, learning, our need for comfort, and the isolation of modern life. Most importantly, she explore what make someone an individual rather than a member of a school class, a member of a family, or someone who defined simply by the motions of their daily lives.

Each detail in The Mixed Up Files is carved as carefully as Michelangelo's fictional angel. I remember precisely such images as the strip of white flesh between Jamie's jacket and sagging trousers when he fills his pockets with change, the deep black tub with golden faucets, the meals they eat from the Automat. The language is equally thoughtful. Decades after I first read this book, sentences such as, "Bedtime is the worst time for organized thinking," still ring in my mind.

Far from being outdated, The Mixed Up Files becomes increasingly relevant. Jamie and Claudia are described as siblings who were so busy with activities that they never really spent much time together, a situation that is certainly even more common today than in the sixties. They're suburban. They're consumers, with Claudia's spending of her paltry allowance described as "her biggest adventure each week." And they feel the emptiness of their busy lives. That is why they run away—as Claudia puts it, to "come back different."

By the end, she is different, and so are we.