Thursday, December 16, 2010

1968: From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E. L. Konigsburg

I wanted to start with From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler for many reasons: 1. Out of the four Newbery medalists I read as a child, this is probably the one I loved the most.  2. Though I loved it so much, I barely remembered it and have long wanted to reread it.  3. I wanted to see how my perspectives on this book changed, now that I am an adult in New York City instead of a child in Kentucky.

In Mixed-Up Files, Claudia Kincaid decides she wants to run away from home, and she convinces her wealthy card sharp of a younger brother Jamie to come with her and fund their adventures.  Her reasons for running are not very distinct—it seems she’s bored of her life as responsible straight-A’s oldest child (these things also describe me-as-a-kid, but don’t worry, Mom, I wasn’t bored!)—but the reasons don’t really matter, anyway.  The fun of this book is not about the emotional drama involved in running away, but rather about the mechanics of making it on your own (which is something kids love to fantasize about and probably explains the popularity of stories starring orphans).  And these particular mechanics are delightful.  The two kids run away from home to the Metropolitan Art Museum.  They sleep in a state bed, keep their clothes in a sarcophagus and an urn, and bathe in (and pilfer coins from) the restaurant fountain.  After they decide to study a different gallery of the museum each day, they stumble upon New York City’s brand-new mystery: an little Italian marble angel, acquired at a bargain $225, which might have been sculpted by Michelangelo.  (For some perspective:  according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics' CPI Inflation Calculator, $225 in 1968 is the equivalent of $1,414.67 today.  Still a steal for a Michelangelo.)

I remembered most of this plot from the 2+ times I read this book as a kid.  What I completely forgot is that this book has one of the most entertaining and amusing narrators I’ve ever read.  The entirety of this slim novel is a letter from Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, a very rich elderly woman in Conneticut, to her lawyer, Saxonberg, written ostensibly to explain what changes she would like to make to her will and why.  Mrs. Frankweiler is a singular person:  she collects not only art—she is the one who auctioned off the angel statue—but also information on anything and everything, stored away in her laboratory-like office in a long row of filing cabinets in her own “mixed-up” organizational system.  She is also very direct and thinks nothing of telling the unvarnished truth, which creates a lot of humor in the novel.  The narration is littered with parenthetical asides to Saxonberg, often explaining things like the card game War or what Claudia is feeling at a given moment, and usually criticizing Saxonberg for being a boring old man who doesn’t care about art or anything else except talking about his grandchildren. 

Mrs. Frankweiler enters the plot herself late in the novel.  Claudia becomes obsessed with solving the mystery of the angel statue, so the two Kincaids spend the last of their money traveling to Connecticut to ask Mrs. Frankweiler if she knows the true sculptor of the angel.  She in turn would like to learn all the details of their running away, so she can file them away with her other secrets.  I suppose if you’re going to take the child who’s reading this book in order to vicariously live in the museum out of the museum and into an old lady’s mansion, you’ve got to give them something fun to keep their interest, and Konigsburg clearly understands this.  The final scenes are brilliant, full of fascinating character moments, a tense time limit, a deeper understanding of the nature of secrets and why the characters need them, and some unexpected revelations that make you slowly glow like Claudia or laugh out loud on the subway.

I haven’t read through the Newbery criteria yet (for shame!), but this award celebrates excellence in children’s literature.  So the most basic question to ask is, is this book an excellent example of children’s literature?  Yes, yes, yes.  This book is still hugely popular 32 years after winning.  Also, let’s look at the other books that Mixed-Up Files was up against in 1968:  the Newbery Honor went to Jennifer, Hecate, Macbeth, William McKinley, and Me, Elizabeth by E. L. Konigsburg, The Black Pearl by Scott O’Dell (which I haven’t read, but I was a big fan of Island of the Blue Dolphins as a kid), The Fearsome Inn by Isaac Bashevis Singer, and The Egypt Game by Zilpha Keatley Snyder (which was one of my very favorite books as a kid).  So Konigsburg was up against some big names, including herself, and this book was selected to receive the Medal.  And even ignoring popularity and awards, it’s easy to see how excellent this book is.  It’s flawlessly written, funny, and fascinating, and it provides an expert portrayal of a child’s mind.  One of my favorite scenes takes place during breakfast in Horn and Hardart’s, when Claudia thinks the angel statue looks like here.  She never comes out and says it, but tries to get Jamie to realize it. 

“Jamie,” she said, “do you think the statue looks like anyone special?”  She folded her arms and gazed into the distance.
“No one I know looks like an angel.”
“Think a minute.”  She cleared her throat and lifted her chin slightly and gazed into the distance.  (p. 63)

This is exactly how this would have gone done between my younger brother and me.  So much melodrama on my end, so much blunt you-make-no-sense on his; Konigsburg really gets it right.

Reading this book as an adult has made me wonder how much of it I really understood as a kid.  Claudia and Jamie often talk like little grownups, and grownup children in the late 60’s speak differently than any children in the early 90’s.  Sometimes they sarcastically call each other “Dear,” which sounds silly to today’s ear.  Jamie also says “oh, boloney!” a lot, which is also pretty odd today.  Claudia likes to criticize Jamie’s grammar, most frequently his ending of sentences with prepositions.   

“The woods we’ll be hiding out in,” Jamie answered.   
“Hiding out in? What kind of language is that?” [Claudia said.]  
“English language.  That’s what kind.” (p. 23)   

This particular exchange continues for several lines in a confusing argument about running away to the woods on Jamie’s end and about the phrasing of the idea of running away to the woods on Claudia’s end.  I was able to follow it now, but I doubt I understood it as a kid, because Claudia never explains the rule of grammar Jamie is violating and because kids end sentences with prepositions all the time.

Reading this book in New York City was a lot of fun.  Suddenly I knew the places they were talking about—it wasn’t a bunch of meaningless names.  When they arrived in Grand Central Terminal and penny-pinching Jamie decreed they would walk to the Metropolitan Museum, I groaned at the distance.  But as a child in suburban Kentucky, I did not viscerally understand the concept of walking forty blocks...or of paying fare, for that matter (I’d never been on a train, a taxi, or a bus that wasn't yellow and heading toward school).  Konigsburg talks about Madison Avenue and Fifth Avenue.  The Kincaids decide to go to “the big library at 42nd street” to start researching Michelangelo.  They get food from an automat, which I guess is really more unique to 1968 than it is to NYC because there are no more automats.  (If you ever saw the Food Network show In Search of Real Food’s episode on the Bamn automat, stop being excited right now.  I spent a depressing evening discovering that it’s not there anymore.)

The coolest part about reading this book in NYC, though, is that I get to actually go to the Metropolitan Art Museum.  I’ve already gone, but I thought it would be really fun to go back and take pictures of landmarks from the book:  the bed they sleep in, the fountain they bathe in, and the Egyptian tomb they hide from Jamie’s class field trip in.  (Oooh, Claudia, look what I did!)  But, tragically, it was not to be.  After a little research, I discovered that the state bed, which was supposedly the scene of the alleged murder of Amy Robsart, wife of Lord Robert Dudley (odd that the bed was the scene of the murder when she famously fell/was pushed down the stairs), has been dismantled and removed.  The figures populating the Fountain of the Muses now live in Brookgreen Gardens in Murrels Inlet, SC (which really burns my toast, because I’ve been to Murrels Inlet and had no idea!).  I learned this from an article by E. L. Konigsburg for Museum Kids, and it’s a fun read that discusses her inspiration and research for the novel and discusses other museum items mentioned in the book. 

The Egyptian tomb, or mastaba, in which Jamie and Claudia hide to avoid discovery by Jamie’s class on a field trip is this, I believe:
Taken by me on a visit to the Metropolitan earlier this year.

This is the Mastaba of Perneb, and it was acquired in 1913, so I think we can safely assume this is the one.

Konigsburg’s article also talks about the real-life $225 statue that helped build her book:  The Lady with the Primroses, an old cast of a sculpture that was not done by Michelangelo.  Here is an article about it, and a picture of it from the article:

Who should give this book a try?
Kids who like to go to museums.  New Yorkers.  Kids who aren’t New Yorkers but still like New York.  Kids who want to see what life was like in 1968.  Kids who like to pretend that they are orphans/runaways having adventures.  Kids who get bogged down in the routine of school and homework and sports practices and music/dance/art lessons and need a little vicarious escape.  Kids who like art.  Kids who like mysteries.  Kids who like to focus on all the little details.  Kids who like secrets.  Adults who squeeeeeed when Jim talked about the book with one of the kids on episode 2.18 of The Office, “Take Your Daughter to Work Day.”

Melanie and the Newbery

So I’ve been hacking away at this goal for the past few weeks, and I’m about to finish my fifth book.  I’m finally ready to start sharing some posts!  I wanted to give you a smidge of background on my childhood experiences with the Newbery Medal so you’ll know where I’m coming from when I talk about these books.

I sat down with the list of Newbery Medal and Honor winners, and here’s what I discovered.  As a child, I only read four of the Newbery Medalists:
and eight of the Newbery Honors:
Since the award is for books appropriate for kids up to age 14, we’ll say my childhood technically ended there.  I turned 14 in 1998, and at that time there were 77 Newbery Medalists.  I only read 5% of them.  This is odd for a kid who was a bookworm from the moment she learned to read.  Why didn’t I read the most excellent books?

I think the biggest answer is that the marketing for these Newbery books was not tailored to me.  My impression of these books with gold and silver stickers was that they were really, really old and mostly boring.  I remember seeing this poster that hung on the wall of the school library in either elementary school or middle school (or both).  It was some unattractive, dusty-looking color, like grayish-peach or grayish-aqua or grayish-gray, and had several Newbery covers lined up in orderly rows and columns.  I have no idea what covers were on that poster; I imagine it to be a good mix of the more popular titles from the 80s and 90s and maybe from earlier.  All I really remember for certain is that when I looked at that poster, all I could think was oooollllllddddd!

I don’t think I realized that this was an award that was still being given out every year to new books, or if I did, these new books must not have appealed to me at all.  In fact, let me look right now…yup, a brief perusal of the 80's and 90's portion of the list reveals a bunch of titles that still don’t really interest me.  I have read some of them in my adulthood and really enjoyed them, but two of those were for a college class and I probably wouldn’t have picked them up on my own.  My current interests run to light fantasy and fairy tale retellings; when I was a kid, as you can probably tell from the list of what Newberys I read, I was all about adventure and the (somewhat dark) supernatural.  My 5% would be a lot higher if Newberys had been awarded to Alvin Schwartz’s scary story collections, to Roald Dahl, to Goosebumps, and, rather anomalously, to The Babysitter’s Club.

This seems to be a subject of debate.  Another brief perusal, this time of the Wikipedia entry on the Newbery Medal, shows that there is a lot of controversy about whether the award honors books that kids actually like.  But there is a difference between popularity and excellence.  I don’t think the gold and silver stickers belong on Goosebumps or The Babysitter’s Club.  I mean no offense to R. L. Stine or to Ann M. Martin, because I thoroughly enjoyed those books and read each one I could get my hands on and made my parents take me to a mall in Columbus, OH so we could stand in line for three hours to get Ms. Martin’s signature on some of my books.  But even as a wee little elementary schooler I remember reading those books and thinking, that sentence could have been written better.  I want to see the gold and silver stickers on books that are not just fun but are also painstakingly written, finely crafted, beautiful stories.

And all of the gold-and-silver-stickered books that I’ve read are painstakingly written, finely crafted, and beautiful.  Even the ones that were not my proverbial cup of tea have given me something valuable.  Can you imagine a fourth-grade guy picking up Because of Winn-Dixie of his own accord?  Me neither.  There’s a little girl on the cover.  But when the bookstore I worked for recently had Kate DiCamillo in to sign, a few of these guys came, Winn-Dixie in hand, and were the most enthusiastic kids there.  They told me they were reading the book in school and absolutely loved it.  Perhaps the Newbery is a guide more for adults than for kids.  Maybe it’s a guide for those who can put books in kids’ hands, books they wouldn’t pick up on their own, books that may have an unappealing title or cover but are gold on the inside, and worth reading.

Or maybe not.  I’ve only read 5% (if you include the ones I’ve read as an adult, 13%).  I could be totally wrong about the rest of them.  That’s what I hope to find out this year.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

In the beginning...

Here’s my challenge:  I’m going to read all the Newbery Medal books in one year.  I have until November 25, 2011.  And I’m going to write about them here.

This is not new, so please don’t be too impressed.  There’s a group of people on Goodreads and on 43 Things and on the Newbery Project blog who are also trying to read them all.  Someone named Virginia Hawthorne is also reading them, and a super-impressive 5th grader named Laura has already finished them.  And I’m sure there are more.  What makes me different?  As far as I can tell, none of these people have given themselves just one year to read these 90 books.  Laura had a time limit—she decided in 2nd grade to read them all before starting middle school.  (And she finished early!  Awesome!)  But my slim one-year time limit should create lots of juicy tension by, say, October 2011.

I won’t throw a tantrum if I don’t finish, though.  I plan to take my time, to really enjoy the books and to investigate their authors, settings (especially if they are set here in New York City!), reasons why they won, and so on.  Plus, I’m working and trying to write a novel and trying to have a social life all at the same time.  I’m also going to have little interludes in which I read (or reread) Newbery Honor books that appeal to me, or read possible Newbery contenders, or just discuss the world of the Newbery and kidlit in general.  So while I say my goal is one year, my goal is really just to read these and have a good time doing so.

Why am I doing this?  Because I want to read what has been deemed The Best in kidlit—the books most deserving of those shiny gold stickers.  I want to read the best literature, but I also want to ponder if it really is all that great and why.  I’m also doing this because I want to reread some of the books I loved as a kid, and see if they’re as great as I remember them to be, and because I want to read the books I missed out on as a kid that I “should” have read, according to the Newbery posters that always hung in my schools' libraries.  I’m also also doing this because I want to join the fun in the kidlit blogosphere, and this seemed like a fun way to do it.  I’m also also also doing this because I’d love to publish a book someday—actually, I’d just like to FINISH a book someday—and I think an intensive study of The Best books will help.

So, please join me for some reviews and some pictures and some wondering aloud about things.  I’ve already read two books—reviews will be up in the next few days!