CLOSE

17 Fun Facts About 'From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler'

This beloved children’s classic—about a girl and her younger brother who run away to New York City, live in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and try to solve the mystery of who sculpted its newest statue—is a staple of elementary school reading lists. Here are a few things you might not have known about it.  

1. AUTHOR E. L. KONIGSBURG GOT THE IDEA FOR THE BOOK FROM A VISIT TO THE MET ...

A kernel of the idea for The Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler began with a piece of popcorn on a chair. Konigsburg wrote later that she was visiting the Met with her three children, going through the period rooms on the museum’s first floor “when I spotted a single piece of popcorn on the seat of a blue silk chair. There was a velvet rope across the doorway of the room. How had that lonely piece of popcorn arrived on the seat of that blue silk chair? Had someone sneaked in one night—it could not have happened during the day—slipped behind the barrier, sat in that chair, and snacked on popcorn? For a long time after leaving the museum that day, I thought about that piece of popcorn on the blue silk chair and how it got there."

2. … A NEW YORK TIMES ARTICLE …

The next important piece of the puzzle came in October of 1965, when Konigsburg read an article in the New York Times about a bust the Museum had bought at an auction, titled “A $225 Sculpture May be a Master’s Worth $500,000.” One dealer guessed that the sculpture, which had come from the estate of Mrs. A. Hamilton Rice, had been created by Leonardo da Vinci or Andrea del Verrocchio. James J. Rorimer, director of the museum, was delighted, according to the article, and said, “I’m overjoyed. It looks to me like a great bargain.” Two other articles about the bust followed, and there was such a media frenzy that, according to John Goldsmith Phillips, Chairman of Western European Arts, the sculpture was brought out of the auction house “in a box labeled by chance ‘musical instruments,’ in this manner passing unnoticed through a group of reporters who were gathered there.”

3. … AND A PICNIC WITH HER KIDS.

The next summer, Konigsburg and her family went on vacation to Yellowstone Park. One day, she suggested a picnic, but they couldn’t find a picnic table, “so when we came to a clearing in the woods, I suggested that we eat there,” she wrote later. “We all crouched slightly above the ground and spread out our meal. Then the complaints began. ... This was hardly roughing it, and yet my small group could think of nothing but the discomfort.” Konigsburg realized her kids could never become uncivilized. If they were ever to run away, “they would never consider a place less civilized than their suburban home. They would want all those conveniences plus a few extra dashes of luxury. Probably, they wouldn’t consider a place even a smidgen less elegant than The Metropolitan Museum of Art.”

And that, she said, is when she started thinking about hiding in the Museum:

They could hide there if they found a way to escape the guards and left no traces—no popcorn on chairs—no traces at all. The Museum had everything. … And while they were there—while they were ‘insiders’ in every sense of the word—they could discover the secret of the mysterious statue that the Museum had bought for $225. And then, I thought, while away from home, they could also learn a much more important secret: how to be different inside their suburban crust—that is, different on the inside, where it counts.

4. KONIGSBURG DREW THE ILLUSTRATIONS—AND HER KIDS POSED FOR THE CHARACTERS.

“The illustrations probably come from the kindergartener who lives inside, somewhere inside of me, who says, ‘Silly, don’t you know that it is called show and tell? Hold up and show and then tell,’” Konigsburg said in 1968. “I have to show how Mrs. Frankweiler looks … Besides, I like to draw, and I like to complete things, and doing the illustrations answers these simple needs.”

She used her children as models for the illustrations. Konigsburg’s daughter Laurie, then 12, posed for Claudia, while her son Ross, 11, posed for Jamie. Her son Paul, she wrote in an afterword to the 35th anniversary edition of the book, “is the young man sitting in the front of the bus in the picture facing page 13.” According to the New York Times, Konigsburg “herded the kids upstairs, took pictures of them in various poses, then made drawings from the pictures.”

5. SHE AND THE KIDS MADE MANY RESEARCH TRIPS TO THE MUSEUM.

“Many, many trips,” she wrote later. “And we took pictures. We were allowed to use a Polaroid camera, but we were not allowed to use a flash. Laurie and Ross posed in front of the various objects that we could get close to. However, they did not take a bath in the fountain. I took pictures of the restaurant fountain and pictures of my children at home and combined them in the drawing.”

6. MRS. FRANKWEILER WAS BASED ON TWO WOMEN.

Mrs. Frankweiler’s personality was based on Olga Pratt, the headmistress of Bartram’s School, where Konigsburg taught; the writer said that Pratt was “a matter-of-fact person. Kind, but firm.” The illustrated Mrs. Frankweiler was based on Anita Brougham, who lived in Konigsburg’s apartment building. “One day in the elevator I asked if she would pose for me,” Konigsburg said. “And she did.”

7. THE BOOK WAS ACQUIRED BY THE WOMAN WHO WOULD BECOME KONIGSBURG’S “FOREVER EDITOR.”

Konigsburg was an unpublished mother of three when she submitted the manuscript for her first book, Jennifer, Hecate, Macbeth, William McKinley and Me, Elizabeth, to Atheneum Books. She chose the imprint, according to a February 28, 1968, New York Times article, because "a couple of years ago it had [a] Newbery Award winner." While Jennifer, Hecate... was with the publisher, and her son Ross was at school, Konigsburg started, and finished, Mixed-Up Files (she wrote the entire manuscript in longhand). Atheneum editor Jean E. Karl wrote to Konigsburg in July 1966 telling her how much she wanted the book:

Since you came in with FROM THE MIXED-UP FILES OF MRS. BASIL E. FRANKWEILER, I have found myself chuckling over it more than once. I have read it myself only once, but the memory of the incidents comes up every once in awhile.

I really do want this book. I will be sending you a contract very shortly. I have some suggestions that I think will make it even better, but don’t want to make them until I have had a chance to read it through again. You will be hearing from me shortly.

Karl would go on to edit all of Konigsburg’s books; the writer called her “my forever editor.”

8. THE BOOK WON A NEWBERY AWARD.

Jennifer, Hecate, Macbeth, William McKinley and Me, Elizabeth, which was also released in 1967, was an honor book, making Konigsburg the only author who received both the medal and an honor book in the same year. In her speech, Konigsburg thanked her editor, Jean Karl, the Newbery committee members, and “All of you, thank you, for giving me something that allows me to go home like Claudia—different on the inside where it counts.”

9. ONE REVIEWER WAS OFFENDED BY THE BOOK'S REFERENCE TO DRUGS…

In one part of Mixed-Up Files, Jamie spots a candy bar on the stairs of the Donnell Library in New York and picks it up; Claudia tells him not to, because “it’s probably poisoned or filled with marijuana, so you’ll eat it and become either dead or a dope addict. … Someone put it there on purpose. Someone who pushes dope.”

In TalkTalk: A Children’s Book Author Speaks to Grown-Ups, Konigsburg writes about a reviewer who didn’t like “a gratuitous reference to drugs in an otherwise pleasing story.” Konisburg then wonders what that reviewer would have thought about a letter she received in 1993 from a reader who wrote,

I liked when Claudia wanted to be a heroine. ... I thought that was only a drug. But now I know it means a girl hero.

“Would the reviewer, who in 1967 was offended by my brief reference to drugs, be equally offended by a young reader who in 1993 needs an explanation for heroine but not heroin?” she wondered. “Or would the same reviewer perhaps have a daughter or granddaughter who in 1993 is a member of the campus feminist group Womyn of Antioch and is offended by Claudia’s thinking of herself as a heroine instead of a hero? For every one of us who says actress or hostess or priestess, there is a word watcher, ready with Wite-Out and caret, who believes that, be they male or female, the correct words are actor, host, and priest. There has always been something to offend someone, and there always will be.”

10. … AND A READER DIDN’T THINK ONE PART OF THE PLOT WAS REALISTIC.

The reader “wrote me a letter scolding me for writing that two kids could live on twenty-four dollars and forty-three cents for a whole week in New York City,” Konigsburg wrote in the 35th anniversary edition of the book. That reader was the only one to complain, though: “Most readers focus on their rent-free accommodation in the museum and recognize that these details—accurate for their time—are the verisimilitude that allow Claudia and Jamie to live beyond the exact details of life in 1967.”

11. ONE PUBLISHER WANTED TO ADAPT SOME OF FROM THE Mixed-Up Files FOR A TEXTBOOK—BUT IT DIDN’T WORK OUT.

At one point, Karl passed along to Konigsburg a request from a textbook publisher to use Chapter Three of Mixed-Up Files in a textbook. Konigsburg published the three-way correspondence between Karl, herself, and the textbook editor in TalkTalk. “I am planning to follow your story with a photo essay/article on a very exciting Children’s Museum in Connecticut,” the textbook editor wrote. “It is my hope that the two pieces together will give children a new, most positive approach to museums, both traditional and experimental.”

Konigsburg was fine with the publisher using a part of the book “if they used the material as I have edited it per the request in their letter,” she wrote back to Karl. “I have cut out as much as they have in the interest of space without destroying the characterization of the two children and without leaving information dangling in the manner they did on pages 3 and 6 of their copy.”

The letter that Karl received back, she wrote to Konigsburg, was “ridiculous. I would like to say to them ‘Go fly a kite.’” The issue? The textbook publisher wasn’t OK with the children standing on the bathroom toilets to evade detection while the Museum was being closed. In a phone call, the editor told Konigsburg that “they were afraid they would get irate letters from people … [and] that some child might read about standing on the toilets and try it and fall in.” Konigsburg said that was nonsense, and that if they wanted to use the chapter, that part had to stay in. Later, she received a letter from Karl:

Dear Elaine:

You will be interested to know that since you will not allow the children not to stand on the toilets [the publisher] has decided not to use the selection. I think they are being absurd and hope it doesn’t bother you too much that they won’t be using it.

Sincerely … etc. Jean Karl

12. THERE WAS A SEQUEL … OF SORTS.

When Mixed-Up Files won the Newbery in 1968, Konigsberg wrote a mini-sequel to hand out to the attendees of the banquet. In it, Jamie is writing a letter (in pencil, to Claudia’s horror, because he’s renting his pen to Bruce) and tells Claudia that he’s writing to Mrs. Frankweiler because she put everything they told her “into a book, and it won the Newbery Medal. … I figure that if the medal is gold, she better cut me in. I’ve been broke ever since we left her place,” he says.

Despite many letters from readers asking for one, this, Konigsburg declared in the 35th anniversary edition of Mixed-Up Files, “is the only sequel I’ll ever write. I won’t write another, for there is no something-more to tell about Claudia Kincaid and Jamie and Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. They are as they were, and as I hope they will be for the next thirty-five years.”

13. IT WAS MADE INTO A MOVIE.

Two movies, actually. The 1973 big-screen adaptation starred Ingrid Bergman as Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler; Sally Prager played Claudia, and Johnny Doran played Jamie. According to a New York Times article about the movie, the Met, which closed for a day to accommodate filming, had “never before given over its premises to a commercial film.” (The title was called The Hideaways for home video.) The book was also adapted in a TV movie in 1995, with Lauren Bacall playing Mrs. Frankweiler.

14. THE MET HAS CHANGED A LOT SINCE Mixed-Up Files

The bed that Claudia and Jamie slept in—where Amy Robsart, wife of Elizabeth I’s favorite, Lord Robert Dudley, was allegedly murdered in 1560—has been dismantled, and the Fountain of Muses, where the kids bathed, is no longer on display. The chapel where Jamie and Claudia said their prayers was closed in 2001. The museum’s entrance has been given a facelift, and it’s no longer free to get in as it was when Jamie and Claudia stayed there (although admission is donation-based).

15. … BUT ITS STAFF STILL GETS ASKED LOTS OF QUESTIONS ABOUT THE BOOK.

In fact, it gets so many questions that it created a special issue of Museum Kids entirely devoted to Mixed-Up Files [PDF]. After making it very clear that kids can’t camp out in the Met like Jamie and Claudia did, the issue guides kids to spots featured in the book—including the Egyptian galleries—and the Room from the Hotel de Varengeville in Paris, where Konigsburg saw the piece of popcorn on the blue silk chair.

16. THE MUSEUM DOESN’T ACTUALLY OWN A STATUE BY MICHELANGELO.

But it does own some of his drawings, including Studies for the Libyan Sibyl, which he drew to prepare for painting the Sistine Chapel. According to the Mixed-Up Files issue of Museum Kids, “The drawing isn’t on view very often because, over time, light will darken the paper and you wouldn’t be able to see the red chalk that the artist used to draw the picture. The drawing is kept in a black box that keeps out moisture, dust, and air.”

17. AND THE MYSTERY OF ITS BARGAIN SCULPTURE HAS BEEN SOLVED.

The Met’s bargain sculpture was made of plaster with a stucco surface; it is believed to be a cast of one of Verrocchio’s sculptures, The Lady with the Primroses. Curators think it was made by Leonardo da Vinci around 1475, when he was working in Verrocchio’s workshop [PDF].

nextArticle.image_alt|e
MICHAL CIZEK/AFP/Getty Images
arrow
Lists
15 Powerful Quotes From Margaret Atwood
MICHAL CIZEK/AFP/Getty Images
MICHAL CIZEK/AFP/Getty Images

It turns out the woman behind such eerily prescient novels as The Handmaid’s Tale and Oryx and Crake is just as wise as her tales are haunting. Here are 15 of the most profound quips from author, activist, and Twitter enthusiast Margaret Atwood, who was born on this day in 1939.

1. On her personal philosophy

 “Optimism means better than reality; pessimism means worse than reality. I’m a realist.”

— From a 2004 interview with The Guardian

2. On the reality of being female

“Men often ask me, Why are your female characters so paranoid? It’s not paranoia. It’s recognition of their situation.”

— From a 1990 interview with The Paris Review

3. On limiting how her politics influence her characters

“You know the myth: Everybody had to fit into Procrustes’ bed and if they didn’t, he either stretched them or cut off their feet. I’m not interested in cutting the feet off my characters or stretching them to make them fit my certain point of view.”

— From a 1997 interview with Mother Jones

4. On so-called “pretty” works of literature

“I don’t know whether there are any really pretty novels … All of the motives a human being may have, which are mixed, that’s the novelists’ material. … We like to think of ourselves as really, really good people. But look in the mirror. Really look. Look at your own mixed motives. And then multiply that.”

— From a 2010 interview with The Progressive

5. On the artist’s relationship with her fans

“The artist doesn’t necessarily communicate. The artist evokes … [It] actually doesn’t matter what I feel. What matters is how the art makes you feel.”

— From a 2004 interview with The Guardian

6. On the challenges of writing non-fiction

“When I was young I believed that ‘nonfiction’ meant ‘true.’ But you read a history written in, say, 1920 and a history of the same events written in 1995 and they’re very different. There may not be one Truth—there may be several truths—but saying that is not to say that reality doesn’t exist.”

— From a 1997 interview with Mother Jones

7. On poetry

“The genesis of a poem for me is usually a cluster of words. The only good metaphor I can think of is a scientific one: dipping a thread into a supersaturated solution to induce crystal formation.”

— From a 1990 interview with The Paris Review

8. On being labeled an icon

“All these things set a standard of behavior that you don’t necessarily wish to live up to. If you’re put on a pedestal you’re supposed to behave like a pedestal type of person. Pedestals actually have a limited circumference. Not much room to move around.”

— From a 2013 interview with The Telegraph

9. On how we’re all born writers

“[Everyone] ‘writes’ in a way; that is, each person has a ‘story’—a personal narrative—which is constantly being replayed, revised, taken apart and put together again. The significant points in this narrative change as a person ages—what may have been tragedy at 20 is seen as comedy or nostalgia at 40.”

— From a 1990 interview with The Paris Review

10. On the oppression at the center of The Handmaid's Tale

“Nothing makes me more nervous than people who say, ‘It can’t happen here. Anything can happen anywhere, given the right circumstances.” 

— From a 2015 lecture to West Point cadets

11. On the discord between men and women

“‘Why do men feel threatened by women?’ I asked a male friend of mine. … ‘They’re afraid women will laugh at them,’ he said. ‘Undercut their world view.’ … Then I asked some women students in a poetry seminar I was giving, ‘Why do women feel threatened by men?’ ‘They’re afraid of being killed,’ they said.”

— From Atwood’s Second Words: Selected Critical Prose, 1960-1982

12. On the challenges of expressing oneself

“All writers feel struck by the limitations of language. All serious writers.”

— From a 1990 interview with The Paris Review

13. On selfies

“I say they should enjoy it while they can. You’ll be happy later to have taken pictures of yourself when you looked good. It’s human nature. And it does no good to puritanically say, ‘Oh, you shouldn’t be doing that,’ because people do.”

— From a 2013 interview with The Telegraph

14. On the value of popular kids' series (à la Harry Potter and Percy Jackson)

"It put a lot of kids onto reading; it made reading cool. I’m sure a lot of later adult book clubs came out of that experience. Let people begin where they are rather than pretending that they’re something else, or feeling that they should be something else."

— From a 2014 interview with The Huffington Post

15. On why even the bleakest post-apocalyptic novels are, deep down, full of hope

“Any novel is hopeful in that it presupposes a reader. It is, actually, a hopeful act just to write anything, really, because you’re assuming that someone will be around to [read] it.”

— From a 2011 interview with The Atlantic 

nextArticle.image_alt|e
FRED DUFOUR/AFP/Getty Images
arrow
Design
China's New Tianjin Binhai Library is Breathtaking—and Full of Fake Books
FRED DUFOUR/AFP/Getty Images
FRED DUFOUR/AFP/Getty Images

A massive new library in Tianjin, China, is gaining international fame among bibliophiles and design buffs alike. As Arch Daily reports, the five-story Tianjin Binhai Library has capacity for more than 1 million books, which visitors can read in a spiraling, modernist auditorium with floor-to-ceiling bookshelves.

Several years ago, municipal officials in Tianjin commissioned a team of Dutch and Japanese architects to design five new buildings, including the library, for a cultural center in the city’s Binhai district. A glass-covered public corridor connects these structures, but the Tianjin Binhai Library is still striking enough to stand out on its own.

The library’s main atrium could be compared to that of the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Guggenheim Museum in New York City. But there's a catch: Its swirling bookshelves don’t actually hold thousands of books. Look closer, and you’ll notice that the shelves are printed with digital book images. About 200,000 real books are available in other rooms of the library, but the jaw-dropping main room is primarily intended for socialization and reading, according to Mashable.

The “shelves”—some of which can also serve as steps or seating—ascend upward, curving around a giant mirrored sphere. Together, these elements resemble a giant eye, prompting visitors to nickname the attraction “The Eye of Binhai,” reports Newsweek. In addition to its dramatic main auditorium, the 36,000-square-foot library also contains reading rooms, lounge areas, offices, and meeting spaces, and has two rooftop patios.

Following a three-year construction period, the Tianjin Binhai Library opened on October 1, 2017. Want to visit, but can’t afford a trip to China? Take a virtual tour by checking out the photos below.

A general view of the Tianjin Binhai Library
FRED DUFOUR/AFP/Getty Images

People visiting China's Tianjin Binhai Library.
FRED DUFOUR/AFP/Getty Images

A general view of China's Tianjin Binhai Library.
FRED DUFOUR/AFP/Getty Images

A woman taking pictures at China's Tianjin Binhai Library.
FRED DUFOUR/AFP/Getty Images

A man visiting China's Tianjin Binhai Library.
FRED DUFOUR/AFP/Getty Images

A woman looking at books at China's Tianjin Binhai Library.
FRED DUFOUR/AFP/Getty Images

A general view of China's Tianjin Binhai Library.
FRED DUFOUR/AFP/Getty Images

People visiting China's Tianjin Binhai Library.
FRED DUFOUR/AFP/Getty Images

[h/t Newsweek]

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios