Friday, April 20, 2012

Re-reading: From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler

I might be cheating on this one because I’m not exactly "rediscovering" this book. I’ve read it, oh, hundreds of times over the years—I used to flip to the scene where they dig for coins in the fountain and read from there if I couldn’t fall asleep—and it is my go-to answer for the “what’s your favorite book” question.

If you aren’t familiar with the story, it’s about a 12-year-old girl, Claudia, who runs away with her little brother Jamie. But she doesn’t like doing things halfway and she really likes learning (I wonder why I identify with this book?) so she plans everything out in minute detail, and chooses to run away to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Claudia and Jamie join up with school tours to learn everything they can about the museum; they try to solve the mystery of a possibly-carved-by-Michelangelo sculpture; they make a budget and go to automats. Basically, they are awesome in a way that I want to be awesome, and I fundamentally don’t understand how anyone can dislike this book.

The first time I visited the Met, I dragged my companion to the furniture room to see if there was a canopied bed like the one Claudia and Jamie slept in. We stumbled on a dark mahogany bed with intricate carvings, and it was all I could do to keep from crawling in. (He hadn’t read the book and didn’t get why I was so excited.) And I think that’s what I love about books so much—how they can change the way you perceive everything. To anyone else, that was just a pretty bed, but for me it was the musty-smelling retreat that Claudia wanted to be so much more comfortable than it actually was.

There’s something to be said for a book that follows you throughout your life, and I haven’t had anything that comes close to this one. Everything about it—the story, the characters, the voice—is just so perfect to me. One thing that has changed, though, is that I now live in New York, and every time I walk down Fifth Avenue, I think of Claudia, carrying a violin case packed with clothes and thinking about how to be important. Which is, I think, what we’re all doing here (minus the violin case, maybe).

Grade I would have given this book as a kid: Macaroni and Cheese
Re-reading grade: Macaroni and Cheese with Bacon
Status: I love this book, but now I'm hungry


  1. I loved this book as a kid. I wanted to live in a museum too. I was so sad that the Night at the Museum movies weren't just an adaptation of these books.

    1. So, they made a movie with Laren Bacall:

      I have not seen it. I don't believe I will ever see it. There's just no way it could live up.

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  3. I was one of those kids who never read this book as a kid. I'm not sure how I missed this one, and it makes me sad. I actually just read it for the first time a couple of years ago as an adult. It was enchanting. It made me wish automats still existed. It made me realize the Tenenbaum kids were just copycats. It also made me sad that I hadn't read it as a kid because I think I would have read it to tatters. Although reading it as an adult for the first time did add some interesting perspective for me--I found the story about Mrs. Frankweiler quite poignant in a way I don't think I would have reading this as a 10-year-old. (Probably because I'm a 31-year-old who is a spiritual octogenarian.)

    Interestingly, the used edition I picked up (from the "Almost Banned From Harvard Square" used book sale table) must have been a movie tie-in from an earlier movie because there is a photo on the cover of Ms. Ingrid Bergman as Mrs. Frankweiler. At first I thought there was only one movie with Lauren Bacall, which you mentioned, but I just did some more poking online and found that it was originally made in the '70s under the title "The Hideaways." Upon further inspection, I realized the lady on my cover was Ingrid, not Lauren. So TWO movies of it exist. How 'bout that?

  4. I really loved this book as a kid, and bought a used copy of it a few years ago at a bookstore...I think in Sag Harbor? I haven't re-read it since buying it, though I fully intended to. This post is inspiring me to pick it up again, soon!