Tuesday 16 September 2014

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

Author:  E. L. Konigsburg

Illustrator:  E. L. Konigsburg

Era:  1967

Published:  1967 (Atheneum)

Award:  Newbery Medal 1968, William Allen White Children's Book Award 1970

Age Range:  9 and up

Review:  ★★★★

At 12 years-old, Claudia Kincaid is the oldest child in the Kincaid family, her other siblings being three younger brothers.  Feeling unappreciated and tired of the mundaneness of life, she decides to run away to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  Joining her is her middle brother, 9 year old Jamie, whom she decides to take because he is reasonably easy-going and is also the only one in the family with money, which he continually makes by adeptly cheating at cards.

Metropolitan Museum of Art
source Wikipedia
As they adjust to life at the museum, they discover by chance a marble statue of an angel.  Upon further investigation, they find that it was sold to the museum by a Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler and, even more exciting is the fact that it is suspected of being carved by none other than the famous Renaissance sculptor, Michelangelo.  Claudia sets out to discover the truth and, at the end of her search, finds something that she never expected.

Greek & Roman galleries
source Wikipedia
Genre:  Children's Fiction

Title:  From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler.  Why would Konigsburg choose this title for her story?  We understand finally that the secret of the statue comes to light from Claudia and Jamie's search through the Mrs. Basil's files, but there is more than this one "mix-up" in the novel.  Claudia is mixed-up as to what she wants and the actual story behind the statue, Angel, is mixed-up between fact and fiction as well.  But just as Mrs. Basil's mixed-up files that had appeared so secretive have a purpose and come out right in the end, so, too, do the other conflicts in the novel.

Setting:  The book is set in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.  As the children's spend time there, the reader is introduced to information about the museum.

Point-of-View:  The story is told from a first person omniscient point-of-view by Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, yet one could almost call it third-person, as most of the story she relates is about Claudia and Jamie.  The narration takes the form of a letter to her lawyer, Saxonberg.  Why might the author have chosen an old lady who didn't actually share in the adventures of the story to tell it?  Well, in the first place, Mrs. Frankweiler has wisdom and experience.  She is not only able to inject nuggets of wisdom into the narrative, she also has more knowledge of the museum and pieces in it, than the children might have and can occasionally communicate that knowledge to the reader.  And being a rather mentally youthful old person, she is both able to understand the children's motivations and desires, while guiding them in their search.  She understands both what they want and what they need.


Claudia Kincaid:  At 12 years of age, she is the oldest child of the Kincaid family and a straight-A student.  Claudia is dissatisfied with her life, feeling the pressures of being an older sibling, and she longs for something other than the sameness of her life.  She comes up with the idea to run away to the museum.

Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler:  An 82 year-old widower who is the narrator of the story.  She's a little crotchety, but also spunky and wise.  She doesn't give the children what they want easily which teaches them the value of hard work.  Like Claudia, she likes secrets.

Jamie Kincaid:  Claudia's 9 year-old younger brother.  She chooses him as her companion because he has imagination, but mostly because he is the sibling with the most money.  He is also witty and thinks on his feet.  Claudia may be more academic, but it is Jamie who has life skills.

Saxonberg:  the lawyer to whom Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler addresses her letter (which is the novel).  The reader never meets Saxonberg, who instead remains an ambiguous character.  But since this book is full of secrets, is it surprising that he remains cloaked in mystery?


What does the central character want?

    Angel by Michelangelo
    early works
    source Wikipedia
  • Claudia wants to escape the mundaneness of life and the injustice of being an older sibling.  She desires to have an adventure that will change her so she can return home a different person from the one she was before.  When they discover the statue and its possible history, Claudia sees this as a chance for excitement and notoriety.  She is driven by this goal and finds out everything she can about the statue.  Her drive and dedication to this task could be compared to the effort Michelangelo gave to honing his craft and creating Angel. Claudia believes that if she can solve the mystery of the statue, she'll finally be someone; she can return home a celebrity, impress her family and finally be different than the old Claudia.

What keeps her from getting what she wants?

  •  Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler impedes Claudia from reaching her goal by making it difficult for her to find out the truth about Angel, and then demanding secrecy.  Mrs Basil E. Frankweiler says, "I admired her spirit; but more, I wanted to help her see the value of her adventure.  She still saw it as buying her something: appreciation first, information now."  Mrs. Frankweiler is trying to help fix Claudia's "wrong thinking".  If Claudia's focus is on being famous, that fame could be gone in an instant, but the effort that went into reaching her goal was by far more valuable.

How does Claudia finally get what she wants?

  • By having to work so hard to accomplish her goal, Claudia finally realized that public approval, or getting praise as an end which will only last for awhile, is nothing to the personal satisfaction of hard work and achievement that can last forever.  She learns that the only true way to be different is on the inside.

Conflicts:  Man vs. Man   There is conflict with Claudia and Mrs. Frankweiler as to whether to reveal the secret of the statue, and there is also conflict with Claudia within herself as she struggles with how to be a different person.

  • Dissatisfaction
  • Self-Reliance
  • Dreams
  • Secrets
  • Family
  • Character
  • Art


E.L. Konigsburg
"Secrets are safe, and they do much to make you different. On the inside where it counts. I won't actually be getting a secret from you; I'll be getting details. I'm a collector of all kinds of things besides art," I said, pointing to my files.

"I think you should learn, of course, and some days you must learn a great deal.  But you should also have days when you allow what is already in you to swell up inside of you until it touches everything.  And you can feel it inside of you.  If you never take time out to let that happen, then you accumulate facts, and they begin to rattle around inside of you.  You can make noise with them, but never really feel anything with them.  It's hollow."  

"Having words and explanations for things is too modern."

Further Investigations:

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  1. Hello! I'm so sorry to post this here, I hope you don't mind! I just wanted to let you know that I've nominated this blog for the Liebster Award:


    I love both this blog and Classical Carousel, and since Classical Carousel has already been nominated once, I thought I'd nominate this blog as well. I love that there is a blog just for classic children's lit, and I really like the layout of your posts - very handy for coming to grips with the story! :)

    1. Thanks so much for the nomination and your kind words! I need to get this blog moving again, so your post is timely!

      Thanks again!