If you’ve never read this book before, you did childhood wrong. I read this book many times as a kid, and maybe even stole a copy of the book from my teacher’s classroom library, because I loved it so much. Briefly, it’s about a brother and sister who run away from home and stay in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. For years between tweendom and young adulthood, I almost forgot about this book, but living close to the city and enjoying art history classes in high school and college has elevated the Met to my absolute favorite museum. Once I remembered From the Mixed-Up Files takes place in the Met, I had to wonder if my subconscious love for the book might have contributed to my reverence for the Met. The siblings’ adventures exploring the museum and increasing their stealth to ensure they don’t get caught staying there every night filled my head with such vivid pictures and seized my heart with such suspense that it became a classic to me the first time I read it. If you were somehow unaware of the book until now, I hope this description alone has piqued your interest.
Childhood Rating: 5 out of 5 Temple of Dendurs
The story opens with the eponymous Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler writing a letter to her lawyer along with a carbon copy of her files to explain why she is changing her will. Mrs. Frankweiler narrates the story of Claudia Kincaid and her little brother Jamie. Claudia has decided to run away because she feels her parents treat her unfairly at home compared to her three younger brothers. She chose her second youngest brother, Jamie, to accompany her because he is well-behaved and, more importantly, has saved a lot of money from being the youngest card shark in town. Claudia has decided they’re going to run away to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City because she wants to be somewhere comfortable and beautiful. She’s bored with the monotony of her life in the suburb of Greenwich and hopes her family will learn to appreciate her once she’s gone. She has designated Wednesday as D-Day since they have music lessons that day. Claudia has the brilliant idea to pack their clothes and other necessities in their instrument cases. She’s planned it all out to look as inconspicuous as possible, and even found an unused train ticket in her parents’ waste bin to get into the city. On Wednesday when the bus pulls up to school, Claudia and Jamie hang back until the bus returns to the depot. They sneak to the train station from there, mail a letter home telling their parents not to call the FBI, and head into the city.
Claudia and Jamie stash their luggage outside the museum and enter as visitors to scope out how they’ll sneak in and where they’ll hide. They find their opening in the Children’s Museum entrance and claim to be looking for their mom. As the museum closes down, Jamie and Claudia hide in the bathrooms until it’s all clear, tucking into a bed from the Tudor period. The next morning they wake early to wash up and hide until visitors begin to arrive. They pick an exhibit to explore that day, planning to learn all they can about the layout and areas of the museum. As they explore the Italian Renaissance area, they notice people making a fuss over a statue of an angel and find out it is being photographed for a newspaper. Claudia is curious about what makes the statue special, while Jamie could care less. The next day they steal a copy of the newspaper with a story about the angel statue and find out it may be an early work of Michelangelo, bought at auction for $225.00 from the collection of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. Claudia, completely enraptured by the news story, decides to shift their focus from learning about everything in the museum to concentrating on the statue and Michelangelo.
As the days pass by the siblings explore the city to eat, do laundry, and research the statue. They fine-tune their daily routine at the museum, learning to avoid detection and the pick up on the cues that let them know when the museum is clear. They take baths in the restaurant fountain that is full of coins, which helps their dwindling savings. Jamie discovers a clue when the statue is moved; an impression of interlocked circles and an “M” on the crushed velvet the statue rested on. Jamie is sure he saw the image in one of the books he looked at in the library. Will Claudia and Jamie solve the mystery of the angel statue? How does Mrs. Frankweiler know their story? Will Claudia finally get some respect?
Reading this book as an adult made me feel like a kid again, wishing I were as brave and smart as Claudia and Jamie. I would LOVE to chill at the Met for a week and stay overnight…although that’d be pretty difficult with today’s security technology. I still worried they’d get caught and was impressed with their ingenuity. It might seem weird that the author had them stay overnight at a museum instead of something more child-geared like a zoo or a toy store, but if you think about how restrained kids have to be in a museum it makes sense. Alone in the museum, they’re able to fulfill every child’s desire to touch stuff they’re not supposed to, even sleeping in a bed on display. The mystery of the Angel statue and the connection to Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler might seem random in a story about two runaway children, but it all comes together. Jamie and Claudia’s retreat from reality and adult supervision ends with them learning a valuable lesson from an elderly woman who truly admires their gusto. When they return home, they’ve gained more than they ever imagined.
Adulthood Rating: 5 out 5 violin cases hidden in sarcophagi