Previous installments of Jaya Catches Up can be found here.
This book was everywhere in my elementary school classrooms, and I think the reason I didn’t read it is that I knew I would never say the title correctly. If someone asked me what I was reading I would have announced “The Messed-Up Files of Mrs. Franken E. Hossenfeffer” or some bullshit, and I was not about to ruin my reputation as “child who can definitely read” to die on that hill. But now I have an English degree and some Twitter followers so Mrs. Bandy E. Frankensifter or whatever can just sit the fuck down and get read.
I admit that I am predisposed to like this book, in which two siblings run away from their home in Connecticut to live in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in Manhattan in the 1960s. My elementary school was two blocks away from that museum. In fifth grade, when they finally let us go out by ourselves for lunch (“finally” omg we were ten), my friends and I would grab bagels or pizza or hot dogs and sit on the museum steps and watch people go in and out. Like Gossip Girl, but if everyone wore Looney Toons shirts. The museum’s proximity also made it the main destination for our school trips — I probably sketched the Temple of Dendur at least eight times in my grade school years. So this book is set in my world.
It’s written as a letter from Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler to her lawyer, whom she seems to both hate and pity, describing how two children managed to end up in her will. Claudia, the main character, is twelve years old and bored as hell (if you’ve been to Connecticut, you know this is an accurate way to feel), and decides to run away to the most glamorous place she can think of. She takes her little brother Jamie because he is good with money, and she knows enough about herself to know that her expensive taste could get her in trouble. The book immediately takes children seriously, presenting them as inexperienced, sure, but clearly capable of understanding their own strengths and weaknesses. This book doesn’t talk down.
Of course, Claudia has expensive taste because she’s a bit of a spoiled brat, but not because she’s well-off. It’s because she’s never wanted anything. Part of this, surely, is because she has never wanted for anything, but twelve is around the age that many of us become uncomfortable with whatever our lives have been ump to that point. It’s the age when you become more aware of boredom, and start to feel unappreciated, even though you rarely have any qualities to appreciate. (I know, I know, all children are miracles, but I don’t think you get the privilege of being “appreciated” by the world at large if all you do is go to school and make your bed for your fifty-cent allowance.) Claudia knows there are things to want out there, and she wants to find them — she’s just been given limited tools to work with.
So she and Jamie hide on the school bus, get on the train, and find their way to the Met, where they stash their stuff in some sarcophagi and wait for dark by hiding in bathrooms and under antique beds, all according to the plan Claudia has been crafting for months. They blend in with school groups by day (because they do like learning, they just don’t like being told how and when to do it) and bathe in the cafeteria fountain by night, and occasionally leave the museum to eat mac and cheese or wash the clothes they’ve stuffed in their pockets. All in all, they are living their best lives.
I’ve found that I am attracted to children’s books in which guardians do not matter. As they spend just over a week away from home, there are hints to what must be happening in Connecticut. Claudia flips past an article in the Times about their parents’ frantic search, and when they finally meet the titular Mrs. Frankweiler, she vaguely mentions that their parents must be hysterical. They seem to have honestly not thought of it, in the way most children do not think of their parents — not because they are mean or inconsiderate, but because they know they’re fine, so why wouldn’t everyone else know? They’ve spent the week learning about ancient Egypt and Renaissance painting while keeping themselves bathed and fed. I know adults who could only aspire to a life like that.
Early into their stay at the Met, Claudia finally finds something to desire: the Angel statue that’s just gone on display, rumored to be a work of Michelangelo’s although the art world is still debating its origins. She becomes obsessed with it, and now her mission to run away and have an adventure becomes a mission to solve the mystery of Angel, who Claudia even begins to believe she resembles. It’s another manifestation of the meaning she’s looking for. Here’s this enigma of a statue, which people across the city line up to see every day, and they can only guess at its true story. Claudia, on the other hand, is a known quantity, a rich child from the Northeast; she doesn’t have the luxury of anyone trying to figure her out.
At first it seems the book is going to turn into a child-detective novel, with Claudia and Jamie discovering the “M” imprint the statue leaves behind on its velvet pedestal, and their certainty that this will be the clue to crack the case. But that would have been too easy and too childish, and the letter they send to the curators is returned with the news that of course expert curators thought to flip the statue over in the course of verifying its authenticity. So, after a week of hiding out with no more leads, Claudia decides they need to go to the source: the house of the donor, Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler.
But first, a racist interlude, because no children’s book should stay un-ruined. This comes from the section in which the kids spend some time on a tour of the United Nations, trying to figure out what their next move is:
Despite the appalling idea that “saris are a way of being different” and not, you know, the traditional dress of a few countries that have far more people than America, I get what Claudia is going for here, because it’s what she’s going for when she runs away in the first place. Our middle school fashion choices and associations are rarely about making us interesting to other people — they’re about making us interesting to ourselves. It’s what you do when you realize you’re the same as everyone else around you because you’ve all had the same input for the past twelve years, and you won’t get the opportunity to really differentiate yourself for another twelve. So you declare yourself to be the boy-who-always-wears-a-tie or the girl-who-ran-away, just so in those moments when you feel restless and remember just how ordinary you are, you can claim one superficial bit of personality. Superficial differentiation is all you have, and by god you will use it, dreaming of the day when a better way to do things comes along. Not that you should be doing this by playing cultural dress-up, but I feel ya.
This is what Claudia fears when she expresses the need to return home “different,” and in her need to discover the true origins of Angel. She needs something more than the superficial differentiation — not for anyone else, just for herself. She needs to go to bed knowing she’s grown, and on her own terms, because the other terrifying part of being twelve is knowing a massive and uncontrollable change is on the way, or is already happening. I remember reacting to this strangely in my own life, at once trying to hold onto bits of childhood while convincing my parents that I could also be treated like an adult. One time, for instance, I ordered a bacon cheeseburger, and when my dad commented on my order, I said: “I figure soon I’ll be worried about my weight, so I might as well get one while I don’t care.” At that age you know what’s about to happen, and you want to take a stand for something before your body and your mind start to change without your permission.
The idea of having something that only you are in control of is something Mrs. Frankweiler understands, and refers to as the need for a “secret.” Also — surprise! — she has one of her own.
The kids arrive at Mrs. Frankweiler’s house and she pretty much acts like she’s been expecting them, letting them take baths in her black marble tubs (what I wouldn’t give for a tacky black marble bathroom) and hang out instead of calling the police and/or their parents. The kids then discover, after being sent on a scavenger hunt in Mrs. Frankweiler’s files, that she does indeed know the true origins of the statue, and she agrees to leave proof to the children in her will if they promise to keep the secret. Which is why she’s writing to her lawyer (who turns out to be the children’s grandfather??? What is this about?) in the first place.
While reading this book, I kept thinking of a part from Mike Birbiglia’s Sleepwalk With Me, when he talks about falling in love: “Deep down, our whole lives, no matter how low our self-esteem gets, we think, ‘I have secret special skill that no one knows about and if they knew they’d be amazed.’ And then eventually we meet someone who says,‘You have a secret special skill.’ And you’re like, ‘I know! So do you!’ And they’re like, ‘I know!’” But before you want to share that secret skill of yours, the thing that makes you special even when you don’t feel special, you have to realize it exists in the first place. It’s more than learning to love yourself; it’s first learning that you are an alive and valid and capable human, with interests and opinions and personality quirks that make you whole. You have to remember that you’re a person, not another body in ruffled socks and a headband following a teacher around a museum. This book is about that powerful moment when a girl realizes she exists.