From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler

by E. L. Konigsburg

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Setting

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The story takes place in Connecticut and New York in the mid-1960s. Tired of her responsibilities, eleven-year-old Claudia Kincaid plans an adventure: she will run away and live in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Her plans involve her nine-year-old brother, Jamie, who is a pennypincher but also a kindred spirit. Both siblings love adventure, and they complement each other well, Claudia being careful about everything except money, and Jamie being careless about everything except money. Together, these two form a team that first manages to invade the museum and then sets out to discover the secret of Angel, a two-foot statue thought to be the work of Michelangelo. Their efforts to prove that the statue is indeed the work of the famous Renaissance artist lead them to make important discoveries about themselves, about each other, and about what it means to be special.

Literary Qualities

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Konigsburg makes the most of her limited number of characters by using a narrative structure that works on several levels at once. First, the narrative that Mrs. Frankweiler sends to her lawyer Saxonberg frames the story. As a commentary from this wealthy, eccentric elderly woman to her counsel, the story develops Mrs. Frankweiler's character, for she learns that loneliness is a high price to pay for eccentricity, on her part, or for stubborn righteousness on Saxonberg's. She teases him about his extreme propriety throughout the narrative, informing the reader both of her feelings for him and of the fact that this story has, after all, ended, for she can tell it to Saxonberg. Thus, although Claudia and Jamie's future remains uncertain, it obviously will be nothing very tragic. Mrs. Frankweiler's tone belies a bad end.

On the level of the story itself, choosing Mrs. Frankweiler as narrator enables Konigsburg to maintain both the objectivity of a third-person narrator and the intimacy of a first-person one. Mrs. Frankweiler can offer an objective perspective since she meets Claudia and Jamie only at the end of the story, but she can also give the reader all the subjective detail of a first-person narration because she demands a complete account from Claudia and Jamie as payment for giving them a ride home.

Social Sensitivity

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Unlike many adventures, Claudia and Jamie's story involves no struggle between good and evil; no real, threatened, or even potential violence; and no suspense in the usual sense. Nevertheless, many parents may be concerned over some of the actions these two take: running away, stealing coins from the museum fountain, trespassing in the museum, and causing a great deal of pain to their parents. It is important for younger readers to remember that this story presents a kind of childhood fantasy, not a realistic narrative. In fact, many aspects of the story are unrealistic in the extreme: the two children live in the Metropolitan Museum for a week or so, wandering around at night among various exhibits, not to mention splashing about noisily in the restaurant fountain, without setting off an alarm or alerting a guard. Similarly, Claudia's plans work too well. No one ever questions a sixth-grade girl and a third-grade boy on their own in New York City, for example, and the two adventurers manage to rent a post office box in Grand Central Station without having a permanent address or an adult to sign the form. So despite the shady nature of some of Claudia and Jamie's activities, the story is clearly all in fun, and no one could realistically be tempted to treat it as more than a lark.

For Further Reference

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Jones, L. T. "Profile: Elaine Konigsburg." Language Arts 63 (1986): 177-184. Biographical and character analysis.

Kirkpatrick, D. L., ed. Twentieth-Century Children's Writers. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1983. Includes highlights of Konigsburg's life, a bibliography of her writings, and a brief critical summary.

Konigsburg, David K. "Elaine L. Konigsburg." Horn Book 44 (August 1968): 396-398. Biographical background.

Konigsburg, E. L. "Acceptance of Newbery Award." Horn Book 44 (August 1968): 391-395. Konigsburg expresses her views on writing for young people in her acceptance speech.

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