Newbery Medal Award Winner From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L. Konigsburg is about sixth-grader Claudia Kincaid, who decides to run away to the Metropolitan Museum of Art because she thinks she is treated unfairly at home. Her 9-year-old brother, Jamie, provides the funds for her plan to live comfortably away from home, but with little knowledge of the world outside of the suburb where they grew up, the siblings quickly find that $24.43 doesn’t go very far, even in the days where an ice cream sundae only cost 40 cents. Mrs. Frankweiler’s part in their adventures begins when the children find out that an angel statue recently acquired by the museum was bought from the eccentric collector. Their search to solve the mystery of the angel leads them to a visit to Mrs. Frankweiler’s “mixed-up files,” where the children learn more than just the secret of the mysterious statue. She sends them home with a secret and leaves them thinking more about their lives.
I never actually read this book as a child, but I remember that part of my class read it in fourth grade because we did a musical about it. Go figure. Being a child of immigrants in Los Angeles, it was my first exposure to songs like “New York, New York,” and my first time hearing about Rockefeller Center and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
I finally read the book last summer and thought that since it would interest both boys and girls, it would be a good book to read with my fourth grade class. Unfortunately, I forgot to take into consideration the level of the vocabulary and grammar knowledge that was needed to understand the book. I know I often enjoyed books where I didn’t understand everything, but reading a book for fun and reading it for a class are completely different things. Most of my students had trouble with words like “injustice,” “tyrannies,” and “commuting suburb.” And Claudia was probably the first grammar Nazi they encountered in literature. They barely understand subject verb agreement. I don’t expect them to understand her problems with ending a sentence with a preposition or with using phrases like “hide out in.”
(Claudia was not entirely correct, by the way. It is in fact acceptable to end a sentence with a preposition most of the time, as long as you leave out unnecessary prepositions. Don’t believe me? Here’s a video from Merriam-Webster, along with a bunch of other fun English and grammar videos. In the case of “hide out in,” “hide out” is a phrasal verb, so it makes sense to double the prepositions.)
I’ll think twice before using an older “classic” with my students from now on. I find that books that were written for a particular age group tend to contain references that make things interesting for readers of that time period, but those same references make it harder for future generations to understand. My fifth graders usually find difficult concepts interesting, even if they don’t understand them completely, but I will need to be more careful about these things in the future with my younger students…
I think girls will like reading about the smart and resourceful Claudia, but there is plenty in the book for both genders. Kids about 3rd grade and up will enjoy the adventure and mystery in this story about runaway siblings. Be warned: Scholastic tells me that the reading grade level is about 6.8, and I agree with them.
(I do wonder if kids in Konigsburg’s day had a better vocabulary because they had fewer options of entertainment and read more, though.)