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.