I turned into a teary-eyed sap as I read the New York Times obituary of Newbery Award-winning author E.L. Konigsburg, who died last Friday. Her classic young adult novel, From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, is one of my all-time favorites. It’s the reason I swore from the age of 10 that I would move to New York. (I made good on that promise.) It’s the reason I am a certifiable word nerd. I still treasure my childhood copy of the book with my name handwritten on a purple sticker bookplate.
A Manhattan-based version of the greatest youth fantasy (read: a life devoid of parental supervision), From the Mixed Up Files follows Claudia Kincaid and her younger brother Jamie as they flee the suburban doldrums and hide out in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. There is adventure. There is mystery. There are grammar references and vocabulary lessons. It’s loaded with poignant wisdom.
Twelve-year-old Claudia is the kind of character who inspires all the best kinds of troublemaking. Here are a few important lessons I learned from this bold, enterprising runaway.
1. Do not tolerate injustice or monotony. Sometimes life is unfair. And sometimes it is mind-numbingly boring. As the oldest child burdened with extra chores, a paltry allowance and stuck living in a cookie cutter ‘burb, Claudia grasped both of these harsh realities at an early age. She was not cool with either. Hence her epic, F-this-scene escape. She was fully committed to taking a stand and rejecting the status quo.
2. Don’t run from somewhere, run to somewhere. Somewhere awesome. It doesn’t really get more awesome than the Metropolitan Museum of Art after closing, does it? Claudia wasn’t just going to hide out in the woods behind her house like some amateur. No, she wanted to do it big. Her runaway was punctuated with the finer things — like sleeping in a State bed (a little musty and possibly the scene of a 16th century murder, but whatevs) and a nighttime bath in the Met fountain among elegant statues of sprites and dolphins.
3. Embrace teamwork. Mission Metropolitan Museum was no solo undertaking. It was Team Claudia and Jamie, siblings working together against all odds and obstacles to evade and outsmart adults at every turn. How did they do it? To quote from the book: Becoming a team didn’t mean the end of their arguments. But it did mean that the arguments became a part of the adventure — discussions, not threats. To an outsider the arguments would appear to be the same because feeling like part of a team is something that happens invisibly. You might call it caring. You could even call it love. That’s some pretty solid any-kinda-relationship advice right there.
4. Yes, you are brilliant. Take the compliment. To quote from the book, Jamie looked all around. “I think you’re brilliant, Claude. New York is a great place to hide out. No one notices no one.” “Anyone,” Claudia corrected. She had to agree with her brother. She was brilliant. It always struck me that Claudia totally got what made her amazing. She owned it. The girl really, truly liked herself. And that made me really, truly like her. At a time when so many of us agonize over insecurities and shy away from taking credit for our abilities, Claudia’s self-assurance is a reminder that we should all step up and claim our bragging rights.
5. Wear fresh underwear every day. Claudia understood this was paramount to success and comfort. So there was no question that laundry had to be done, even while on the lam. I’ve never been a pre-teen runaway myself, but I have followed this sage advice throughout my life — except for one day on that post-college trek to Europe. But I did go inside out-style, so it’s not entirely terrible, right?
6. Let art overwhelm you. Sometimes you will be drawn to a piece of art, intoxicated by it. It will have power over you. That is how Claudia felt about the angel statue at the Met that may or may not have been the work of Michelangelo (The Mystery!). She can’t stop thinking about her. She wants to wrap her arms around her. She even sees herself in the work. When she discovers an original sketch of the angel, she can’t contain herself: Claudia looked at the sketch until its image became blurred. She was crying. At first she said nothing. She simply sat on the chair with tears streaming down her face, hugging the glass frame and shaking her head back and forthIt’s all good. Have a cry as The Art brings you to your knees. Free your mind, man.
7. Show executive ability. Claudia was a master at planning, organizing and delegating. She knew her own weakness — namely her penchant for overspending — so she appointed her little brother to the role of treasurer. She was a firm boss, but open to suggestion and criticism. When she was tempted to splurge on cabs or fine dining, Jamie reined her in and kept them on budget.
8. Practice mirror moderation. When Claudia and Jamie meet the omniscient Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, Jamie manages to insult Mrs. F. with a doozy of a clueless kid flub. He says she’s “not so bad looking” (D’oh!). She quickly calls for a hand mirror, waxing poetic about the aging process, how her nose is getting longer and she should probably spend more time at the beauty parlor: “I never really look past my eyes. That way I always feel pretty. Windows of the soul, you know.” Claudia took a step closer to me … “Do you spend much time looking in the mirror, Claudia?” “Some days I do. Some days I don’t.” Could the solution to ladykind’s self-image woes be so simple? Eh, probably not. But Claudia is definitely on to something. There’s no reason we need to be chained to the mirror every day — especially if it’s keeping us from excitement and intrigue.
9. Persevere through rejection. Ah, the agony of hearing “no.” It stings. It sucks. It’s awful all around. Claudia gets a big dose of disappointment when she receives a politely worded letter from the PR department of the Metropolitan Museum of Art informing her that the BIG clue she found did not in fact solve the mystery of the angel statue’s origin. It turns out they had known about that clue already. Major bummer. She cries and pouts for minute, but she refuses to go home defeated: “I want to go back different. I, Claudia Kincaid want to be different when I go back. Like being a heroine is different.” So listen up: Do not throw in the towel until your experiences change you. Do not stop until you’re a freakin’ full-fledged heroine, okay?
10. Eat at an Automat. Sandwiches, pie and other refreshments from neat-o little coin-operated compartments? Yes, please. Tragically, I missed the boat on this one. According to my exhaustive internets research, the last NYC Automat closed in 1991 — just three years before I moved to “The City” with Claudia’s wisdom carrying me into the crowd.
Claire Mysko is the author of You’re Amazing! A No-Pressure Guide to Being Your Best Self and Does This Pregnancy Make Me Look Fat? The Essential Guide to Loving Your Body Before and After Baby. She oversees content for Proud2Bme, a program of the National Eating Disorders Association. Follow her on Twitter.