Thursday, August 4, 2011

From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler and Wonderstruck

From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler
As I’ve mentioned a couple of times recently, it can be disconcerting to read a childhood favorite and find that it’s not quite the read one remembers. From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L. Konigsburg (Simon and Schuster - Atheneum) proved to hold up far better on a reread than I could have dreamed.

Claudia decides that she wants something. Something to know about, to make her different, special, changed. She wants to be--and to be, she decides, she will run away to the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art. For starters, how is that NOT awesome? Perhaps I just really enjoy kids on the lam stories; I liked The Boxcar Children and Secrets of the Shopping Mall, and my roommate played “Barbies run away from the government” when she was little, and Nancy and Plum touches on running away as well as survival without adults. I remember looking for the perfect little copse of trees along the road to hide in on long car rides even while I realized that camping out would only be fun so long as it wasn’t cold or raining (the local norm) or until I needed the bathroom or a shower, so running away to a place would be the brilliant solution.

Claudia is good at planning, but her younger brother is good at money, so she invites him along, and soon, they’re sleeping over at the museum and having a better and more meaningful adventure than Claudia anticipated: can they figure out who sculpted the angel that Mrs. Frankweiler donated to the museum? Running away--bathing in the fountain, eating not quite enough in cafeterias, hiding out in the bathroom at the end of the day--wouldn’t be nearly so much fun if it were all about the mechanics.

My heart aches a little at how hard it would be to create a modern adventure story for middle graders and teens. Now, the police would have you on a security camera before you were past the bus stop.  Can you even get a post office box without adult I.D.? You’d call home and caller I.D. would reveal your location (if your cell phone hadn’t been triangulated, or your mom didn't have your phone on GPS). A kid would just want to peek at Facebook. A museum would be alarmed to the hilt. And if you showed up at Mrs. Frankweiler’s house, and she called to tell your parents that you could stay the night and talk about statues before going home, Child Protective Services would probably surround the house and demand everyone out, hands up. Maybe Mixed-Up Files is, today, an off-grid fantasy.

Set in--I think--the 60s, there are the moments of low-tech awareness and older attitudes toward unaccompanied children over a certain age, and just a few passing moments that made me frowny (for example, I recall Claudia remarking that it would take men to move the statue; maybe upper-body strength would be handy, and such a situation likely, but I had a tiny little bristle over that, as I know several women whose biceps I envy, and who would be happy to lend a hand). For a book of its time period, I expected that Mixed-Up Files would be much more dated than it seemed to me.

I love it when kids can function in books, when they have the agency to think things through--the lesson of growing up. Maybe the best part, however, is that this is a middle-grade friendly story that emphasizes seeking adulthood without losing the wonder of childhood.

WonderstruckI heard Brian Selznick talk about Wonderstruck (Scholastic) at the BEA children's authors breakfast, and skimmed right through it on the way home. This story is part running away to a museum (nods to The Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler are deliberate), part, well, running away to a museum. I have a copy of, but have never read, Hugo Cabret, so I didn’t really know what to expect.

The very thick book is a regular-length middle-grade novel with a second story interwoven in pictures. The text version is a boy dealing with becoming deaf in the 1970s, and a series of life-changing events prompt him to run away to New York City to find his biological dad, where finds a friend and a new way to communicate before he gets to the end.

The other story, the visual story, is about a deaf girl in about 1920 who is being forced to learn to lip-read, and whose world is changing faster than she’d like (silent films, her refuge, are being replaced by talkies, and this ties into a huge betrayal, but it would be a spoiler to tell you more). Both of the stories converge at the museum, and on the boy’s resolve to unravel the mystery of his family, no matter what. At the beginning of the visual story, there’s an illustration trick that is repeated a couple of times in a row (and thus loses some of the power of its amazingness and trickery), but after that, this is a totally suck-you-in read about self-concept, family, and friendship.

This copy was provided at the BEA breakfast, one assumes by the publisher. Thanks!

Fun stats: This post was in draft for almost five months. I lost the disk with the review on it for a while... I have 14 more drafts, and a half-dozen books from the last month or two that I haven't even gotten into draft form yet, with 12 reviews scheduled for later in the year. After that, I have a couple hundred to move from my old, unstable blog. Anyone else out there behind schedule too?

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