Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler and Me!
by Judy Newman with Alexie Basil
I have a long and deep relationship with From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E. L. Konigsburg.
I was ten years old in 1967 when From the Mixed-up Files was published and still ten in June of 1968 when it was awarded the John Newbery Medal at the American Library Association’s Newbery-Caldecott Dinner in Kansas City, Missouri.
I was just about to move many of my favorite children’s books—Henry Huggins, Homer Price, The Secret Garden, the Hardy Boys, and A Wrinkle in Time—from their stack on my night table, where I looked at them daily (and they threatened to tip over my water glass), to the bookcase in my room, where I would display them proudly but not actively read them.
Each spring, when we got promoted to the next grade in school, my parents took us to Louis Strymish’s New England Mobile Book Fair in Needham, Massachusetts, to pick out any books we liked. So I owned and treasured lots of books. That summer of 1968, during our annual family trip, my sister and brother stayed in the kids’ section, but I graduated myself to the front of Strymish’s—toward the pallets and shelves with older, adult books. I tipped into books such as Manchild in the Promised Land; Soul on Ice; I Never Promised You a Rose Garden; Sybil; and Coffee, Tea or Me? At this time, I was also moving into the “adult room” at the Newton Free Library, where I spent a lot of time after school and during the summer.
While I was transitioning from Madeleine L’Engle to Claude Brown, my sister, Emily, who is three years younger than me, was still choosing her books from the children’s stacks at Strymish’s. That summer, in 1968, she picked up E. L. Konigsburg’s From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, which I—taking a break from serious adult fare—then borrowed.
I loved it. But, to be honest, in those preteen days, I loved almost everything I read.
I think, when I was younger, I read fast and not that deeply. I would get totally absorbed in a book when I was reading it, but once I’d finished, you could ask me “What was it about?” and I wouldn’t be able to tell you the whole plot. While I do know people (many in my own family!) who can recall every plot detail of a book they’ve read, I cannot.
I loved that From the Mixed-up Files was about two kids who run away from home and end up living in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I, like thousands of kids and the 1967 John Newbery Medal committee, thought that was very cool.
In addition to loving everything I read, I went through a period where I wanted to imitate in real life what my favorite characters were doing in their fictional worlds. I remember plotting how we—my brother and sister and I—could stow away and have a secret sleepover in Filene’s, a department store in the Chestnut Hill Shopping Center at the time.
That idea was fleeting. I didn’t really want to sleep over in Filene’s, and I had no pressing need to run away from home. I was so bold in my regular activities that there wasn’t much I could imagine doing away from home that I couldn’t do while living in the relative comfort of my bedroom, with its purple walls, purple shag carpet, and wall of bookcases filled with my books.
I asked David Vozar, my friend and colleague at Scholastic Reading Club, if he ever thought about sneaking away to have a grand adventure as a child. He did not, but he did have some adventures in his own backyard:
“When I was about nine or ten, I got this idea that I would build a fort in the backyard. I had fantasies of having my own place to escape to whenever I wanted to be alone.
“I remember convincing my dad to drive me to the hardware store, where I bought a bag of cement with my own money. I spent the next few days hauling mini boulders home from the woods. I dug a hole about three feet deep and began cementing the walls and roof together. In a few days, the cement had dried, and I thought I had built a magnificent castle.
“I convinced my parents to let me sleep outside and crawled into the hole with my pillow and blankets. The ground was dirt and I was a little concerned about bugs in there, but I lay down for the night. A few hours later, I heard my neighbors talking to each other across their yards.
“‘Did you hear about David?’ one mom asked.
“The other mom replied, ‘Yes! I can’t believe he is sleeping out in his pile of rocks.’ I assume they did not know that I was a few feet away from them. Visions of my magnificent castle vanished, and I crawled back into the house and into my bug-free bed.
“The ‘pile of rocks’ stood in my backyard for many years, until my dad decided to break it apart and use it to line the garden. I thought he did a magnificent job.”
Even though I never did end up camping out in Filene’s, I remembered From the Mixed-up Files fondly, and excitedly read it again in 1986, when I worked with its absolutely fabulous author, E. L. Konigsburg. Elaine was a fun-loving, brilliant, extremely classy woman. My colleagues from Dell Publishing—Amy Berman, Sherri Zolt, Penny Davis (née Rosenthal)—and I all share one particularly special memory when we worked with her.
We were in New Orleans for the International Reading Association Convention and had just returned to our hotel after having dinner with teachers. We heard a rumor that Prince and Madonna were at the hotel as well, and so we were all waiting in the lobby (nonchalantly, I hope) to try to catch sight of them.
Somehow, George Nicholson—Dell’s incomparable publisher—and Elaine got the same idea at the same time: they both ran upstairs to their respective rooms to grab their dancing shoes. They returned to the hotel lobby and, for the next 45 minutes, danced like true pros—rivaling anything you would see on Dancing with the Stars—with so much grace and class. That memory is etched in my mind: a brilliant children’s book author and a brilliant children’s book editor ballroom dancing together in the hotel lobby while we waited for two pop superstars to come by.
(One professional publishing note—aka digression—to add here: From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E. L. Konigsburg always gave me the opportunity to show my copyediting prowess because many times—before spell-checker and Microsoft Word—copywriters often did not get “Mixed-up” [hyphenated, lowercase u] or “Konigsburg” [not “Kongisberg”] correct in their marketing copy. I made those corrections hundreds of times, and it helped establish my authority and insistence on perfect spelling in the materials we create for the Book Clubs.)
Last weekend, I went to visit my parents at their house in Newton, Massachusetts. Seeing my sister’s original copy of From the Mixed-up Files still in her childhood bedroom made me want to reread the book again and feature it this week on our Scholastic Reading Club blog.
Since I was driving several hours back and forth to my parents’, I figured it was a good opportunity to listen to the audiobook version read by Jill Clayburgh, which includes a 35th anniversary afterword written by Elaine.
When I was ten years old, I read From the Mixed-up Files as a great story about two kids whose adventure I admired and briefly wanted to emulate. When I was older, in 1986, I reread the book as a publishing industry professional who wanted to be able to talk authentically with the book’s author. But now, in 2017, 50 years after the book was published, as I drove east (and then west) on the Massachusetts Turnpike and listened to one of my favorite actresses, Jill Clayburgh, read this practically perfect novel for three hours, I experienced From the Mixed-up Files in yet another way.
At this very different stage in my Life of a Reader, I connected to Claudia—and her determination to come home different than when she left—almost more powerfully than ever.
Today, in 2017, I sometimes pass a department store, and my fleeting dream to camp out in Filene’s is reignited (even though I have two grown children of my own, and it would be very unseemly of me to act on). Those flashbacks are always accompanied by the loud soundtrack of 1968: Walter Cronkite broadcasting nightly on Vietnam; “Groovin’” blasting from the record player in my room after I had finished a good book; or traffic to Woodstock shutting down the New York State Thruway; or the devastating assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the exploding riots that followed in Chicago, D.C., and Baltimore. The late ’60s is so loud in my mind that it’s interesting to remember the ways in which it was quiet, like the lack of cell-phone technology or social media—which probably would have made it much harder for two young children to stay in the Metropolitan Museum of Art undetected for a week. So much has changed and yet, all these years later, From the Mixed-up Files feels as relatable and true to me as any book (children’s or adult) I have read recently. Even though she is a 12-year-old fictional character and I am neither 12, nor fictional, nor camping out in a public place anytime soon, I feel just like Claudia.
And I also feel like Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. Like Konigsburg’s eccentric and empathic eponymous character, I have many, many filing cabinets filled with receipts, photographs, and newspaper clippings that document my “Life of a Reader.” Buried in my filing cabinets are letters E. L. Konigsburg wrote to me, along with some photographs of George Nicholson and Elaine dancing in our IRA convention hotel.
I am rushing to get this blog post finished—we are in the middle of working on Scholastic Reading Club’s book orders for back to school, and I have a pile of books on my desk that I have to read—so I don’t have time to dig through my files. (And, alas, no runaway children have shown up on my doorstep, or I would give them the challenge of finding this memorabilia like Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler posed to Claudia and Jamie.)
But I know somewhere in those filing cabinets are mementos and touchstones to those heady days when, among other things, children’s book literary lions were dancing in the IRA convention hotel lobby. But someday soon, I will find the letters and photos, and I will update this post to share them with you.
In the meantime, my colleagues and I at Scholastic Reading Club wanted you to have the opportunity to read From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, either again or for the first time. And to share it with as many readers of all ages, at all stages of their own lives as readers. And so this wonderful 1968 John Newbery Medal–winning book about family and art and New York City and just wanting to come home different is Scholastic Reading Club’s Dollar Deal book of the week.
We are showcasing some other stories about leaving home, all available from Scholastic Reading Club.
Harry the Dirty Dog
by Gene Zion, illustrated by Margaret Bloy Graham
Sometimes even dogs need a break to go on an adventure! One day before bath time, Harry the dog sneaks out of his home and gets as dirty as he possibly can. He has a fantastic time rolling in dirt and mud and not worrying about being clean. But when he finally returns home at the end of the day, his family doesn’t recognize him! Harry is a white dog with black spots, but this “other dog” is black with white spots.
This picture book was originally published over half a century ago and has since been updated with splashes of yellow and green.
What People Are Saying
“Its timeless storyline, humour and sheer affection between the characters make the series an absolute delight for all ages.” —Kids Book Review
My Side of the Mountain
by Jean Craighead George
Fifteen-year-old Sam has spent his entire life in a cramped New York City apartment with his parents and many brothers and sisters. To escape it all, he teaches himself how to survive in the wilderness by reading books at the public library, and then—with his dad’s permission—ventures out alone to his late great-grandfather’s old farm in upstate New York.
When Sam discovers the farmhouse has burned down, he is determined to survive on his own. My Side of the Mountain has been a favorite for decades because of its depiction of life in the wilderness among animals, as well as Sam’s struggle to balance loneliness with wanting to be independent.
What People Are Saying
“An extraordinary book….It will be read year after year.” —The Horn Book
by J. M. Barrie
While the 1953 animated Disney film may be a staple of many childhoods, Peter Pan was originally a play written in 1904 and then a novel written in 1911, both by J. M. Barrie. Like in the film, Peter Pan is a young boy who can fly and will never grow up. One day, Peter visits a young girl named Wendy Darling in her London home. He ends up convincing her and her brothers to run away with him to a magical world called Neverland.
Although not much is known about Peter’s backstory, he allegedly runs away from home as a baby. The entire story is about kids surviving on their own, on their own terms, and is an exciting way to experience the original story on which the film was based.
Bud, Not Buddy
by Christopher Paul Curtis
The winner of both the Newbery Medal and the Coretta Scott King Award in 2000, this middle grade novel follows Bud, a ten-year-old orphan living in Flint, Michigan, during the Great Depression. When Bud’s foster family turns out to be terrible, he runs away in search of the father he’s never met. Bud’s only clue is a flyer he got from his late mother, which leads him to believe his father plays in a blues band in Grand Rapids.
Bud’s resilience and entertaining stream-of-conscious narration makes the many heavy themes—like racism, homelessness, and poverty—more accessible to younger readers. Christopher Paul Curtis also deployed this technique in his previous book, The Watsons Go to Birmingham—1963.
What People Are Saying
“Bud’s journey, punctuated by Dickensian twists in plot and enlivened by a host of memorable personalities, will keep readers engrossed from first page to last.” —Publishers Weekly
If you’re a reader, you know well that if you need to, you can “run away from home” anytime you get lost in a good book. And if you are happy to stay put, a good book can also make you appreciate how wonderful home can be.
I hope From the Mixed-up Files—and these other titles—inspire you.
These Books Are Available from Scholastic Reading Club