From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E. L. Konigsburg (1967)

This book was a favorite of mine when I was in elementary school. I had a battered paperback copy that I got from a Scholastic book give away at school and one that I read until it almost fell apart. It gave me such a thrill when my older sons both fell in love with the book during their early elementary school years…in fact, they have their very own battered paperback copy. Despite the fact that both boys read (and re-read) From the Mixed-Up Files many times over the years, I had not read it since I was in grade school. I am happy to report that it is still a wonderful read: funny, exciting, filled with tons of delightful insights into the art world…and filled with description’s of the Metropolitan Museum of Art have me dying to make a visit just to see if I can spot any of the treasures mentioned.

The story begins with Claudia Kincaid’s decision that she must run away from home, as she simply cannot bear the indignities of childhood any longer: younger brothers, chores, a lousy allowance, and the endless boredom and lack of sophistication of life in the suburbs of New York City.  So she does what any scrappy, super-smart girls does, she saves her allowance, researches possible locations to “relocate” to, and finally enlists her younger brother’s Jamie’s help with the escape.

The siblings do not run to the woods or to their grandmother’s house, as other kids might, but rather move into New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. After all, Claudia and Jamie need to escape somewhere filled with excitement but do not want to be burdened by life in the outdoors. Claudia is a girl who is drawn to adventure, but also “glamour… elegance and good smells… she loves comfort too much to go on a real adventure.” Being a devoted know-it-all, she prefers to go somewhere she and her brother can learn more about the sophisticated world of art and antiquities. With nary a wrinkle in their plans, the two children move right into the museum, spending their days taking tours and their nights sleeping in a 15th century bed (occasionally sneaking out to do laundry and buy supplies.)

Claudia, a girl drawn to romance and magic, loves being surrounded gowns, jewelry, painting and sculptures. Jamie is more drawn to mystery and risk, he loves the collections (particularly the mummies and armor) but really loves the subterfuge and skill it takes to avoid getting caught.

After a week of their new living arrangement, the children discover a controversy swirling around a new sculpture on display in the Renaissance room, a sculpture that some experts claim was carved Michelangelo; a fact no one has been able to prove. Unable to resist such a mystery, and deciding that no one has better access then they do to the statue and the two begin their own investigation into the origins of the piece.

Soon their search has them scouring libraries, following media coverage surrounding the acquisition, and — eventually — seeking out reclusive art collector, Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, a woman who may hold the key to the mystery of the statue. It is through their interactions with Mrs. Frankweiler that the children come to realize that it was not a new life that they sought but knowledge. The children wanted an understanding of what it was like in the adult world — making their own choices, pursuing adventure, getting by on their wits, and learning things that interested them — and they felt that they could not find that in their childhood home.

They will finally be ready to return home to their frantic parents, they decide, after they have solved the mystery of the sculpture. Claudia in particular feels certain that in order to feel that running away changed her life for the better, she must arrive there with the knowledge of the statue’s origins. The secret of the statue, Claudia realizes, is the knowledge that will change her life forever…”a secret is an adventure that never has to end.”

Children’s literature brings us such a wonderfully refreshing take on storytelling: all action and substance, with a generous dose of excitement, and (at least two) ingenious escapes from danger. Unlike adult novels, children’s literature is not concerned with existentialism or sorrow or much outside the immediate story, but much simpler concerns such as adventure and fun. Indeed, even adult novels that attempt to tell stories of mystery and excitement are somehow polluted by an excess of drama and dense complexity. By comparison, From the Files, does not rely on any of those tropes in order to be a delightful mystery story solved by two wily, super-sleuth siblings. No adults required.

paperback-cover-of-mixed-up-frankweiler

This is the cover from by beloved childhood copy of the the novel.

The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis (1950)

Book 2, The Chronicles of Narnia

Each year I love the focus that my “October Reading Series” gives to my reading list, I plan all September compiling lists of scary, haunting thrillers to read in the countdown the Halloween. It occurred to me this might be a nice tradition to apply to November as well and I gave some thought to what the month of November represents to me and what sort of books might highlight those traditions. Since November is a month of cozy family time with a sharp focus on thankfulness, I decided that I would turn my attention to children’s literature this month. To me, children’s literature uniquely captures what “family” really means and it’s books are full of wonderful examples of caring, loving, families (formed in all manner of traditional and non-traditional ways) and many center on themes such as acceptance, perseverance, forgiveness, and thankfulness…all great virtues to focus during the month of Thanksgiving.

I choose The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe as my first Children’s literature book to revisit this month since it is a perennial favorite among all three of my sons and a book I deeply enjoy reading out-loud to them. In fact, for quite a few months last year we kept our copy of this book in our car and read a chapter or two every time we found ourselves with time to spare (car pick up lines, waiting rooms, soccer practices that ran long), what we dubbed our “minivan book club.”

In this wonderful, gorgeously written novel we follow the story of four London children — Edmund, Lucy, Susan and Peter Pevensie — who have been evacuated from London to escape the Blitz. Packed off to a rural country estate with the mysterious Professor, an “odd looking man with white shaggy hair” who welcomed the children into his home but largely ignored them.

As is common in children’s literature, the action starts in the very first pages, when Lucy finds a wardrobe that is no only filled with thick fur coats but also a doorway to a parallel universe. Filled with talking animals, mythical creatures, evil queens, eavesdropping trees, and a brewing battle between good and evil, Lucy has discovered Narnia.

Although it takes some convincing, Lucy first leads Edmund (whose dark nature leads him to lie about his adventures in Narnia to the others in order to torture Lucy) and then the others into Narnia. There the children find that themselves at the center of a world divided — those in support of the White Witch and those who are waiting for the rightful rulers of Narnia to take their thrones — and they quickly learn that many residents of Narnia believe they are the four rulers who have been long proselytized to arrive in Narnia to defeat the White Witch.

With little warning the four find themselves the unofficial leaders of the resistance movement who must evade capture, lead thousands, and prepare for war…all while still young children.

What follows is a story about four children who overcome their own fears, and their petty grievances with one another, to do what is right: to restore freedom and peace to Narnia. It makes perfect sense that this story would emerge in the years following WW2. In real world England the children are powerless, driven from their home by a terrifying war that has already killed so many people that they know and, across the Channel, millions of others. In Narnia, the siblings are powerful and capable of stopping the war and defeating evil…in them are the inherent skills needed to change the world.

Told in clear easy to understand prose with plenty of action, this is a book that children as young as 5 can understand and enjoy as a read-aloud and it is easily read by independent elementary school readers. A classic for a reason.