My oldest grandson Philip is an avid reader, a trait my wife and I like to encourage. He'd encountered this Newbery award winner in his school libraryMy oldest grandson Philip is an avid reader, a trait my wife and I like to encourage. He'd encountered this Newbery award winner in his school library, and wanted to own a copy, so we gave him one for his 11th birthday last fall. When he discovered that I'd never read it (it was first published in 1967, by which time I was in high school, and focusing my reading on more "grown-up" books), he wanted to share it with me, so he loaned me his copy. (Last year, he likewise introduced me to another kid's classic, Stone Fox.) I'd heard of the book, but had no real clue what it was about.
Elaine Konigsburg (like some other women writers in the earlier decades of the past century, when the book trade was more male-dominated, she hid her gender behind her initials) became an instant success in children's literature with this essentially debut novel. (It was technically the second one she had published, but both books were submitted at the same time.) That's a deserved tribute to her skill as a writer; the craftsmanship of the book is of a pretty high order.
As we learn from the outset through a short "cover letter," the body of the book is supposedly a narrative composed by Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler to her longtime (and long-suffering) lawyer, Saxonburg, to explain a change she wants made to her will. She's a childless 82-year-old widow, as rich as Croesus, and definitely eccentric, imperious and opinionated. Ordinarily, she's not the sort of narrator many kids would readily relate to; but she immediately focuses her tale on two kids, Claudia (age 11) and her nine-year-old brother Jamie. In fact, it's not immediately made clear what relation Mrs. Frankenweiler is going to have to the events of her story. That's a deft move on the author's part, giving child readers child protagonists to relate to, and a bit of mystery as a hook. Claudia's made up her mind to temporarily run away from her home in the New York City suburb of Greenwich, dragging Jamie along for the ride to get the benefit of his assiduously-saved allowance money, and plans to stay in New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art (an actual institution that's still there today) for the duration of her adventure. The expedition will involve both children in a mystery surrounding a Renaissance statuette of an angel that may or may not have been sculpted by Michelangelo --and in some life lessons and self-discovery as well.
Like most books aimed at this age group (older pre-teens), this chapter book is a short (182 pages of main text) quick read. It's also well-written, with the kind of story-line that keeps you turning pages compulsively to see what happens next. The author had a genius for characterization; the two kids are extremely realistic embodiments of children their age (while being nicely differentiated individuals with distinctive personalities and speaking styles). She also laces her writing with an undercurrent of dry humor that frequently crops out. Both the humor and the characterizations, as well as the subtleties of the psychological content, IMO, might actually be perceived and appreciated better by adult readers than by kids. The plotting isn't predictable, and we get one surprise near the end that fits like a jigsaw puzzle and was foreshadowed by clues hidden in plain sight, but which most readers won't see coming. On the whole, it's a kid's book that can hold adult interest. Still, I think I might have liked it better as a child than as an adult reader. Why, you ask?
As I said, Claudia and Jamie are very realistic child characters; I could recognize a lot of traits of my grandkids in them. But these include a lot of traits that (even though I love my grandkids!) are very calculated to drive me up the wall, and I expect many other parents and grandparents have the same reaction. These kids aren't evil or cruel, but they do have a basically self-centered orientation and ethical cluelessness at times, an aversion to responsibility and a feeling that mild chores are an insufferable imposition. Add to this a capacity for sibling rivalry thick enough to cut with a knife, and a willingness of a younger kid to check his brain at the door and let an older sibling lead him around by the nose into outrageous behavior that he should never even have considered. (Been there, see that every day --want to scream at it.) The whole runaway scenario factors into this. Claudia isn't an abused, unloved child trying to escape a horrible home life. She's a pampered, well-to-do kid who doesn't think she's pampered enough, and just wants to run off to subject her family to "a lesson in Claudia appreciation." Yes, she mailed them a letter (which they wouldn't get until at least the next day!) telling them not to worry --as if they wouldn't! Konigsburg keeps the adults in Claudia's family largely offstage, so that readers can put them out of mind. But you don't put people you genuinely love out of mind, and you don't put them through hell just for purely selfish reasons --and as a father and grandfather myself, whenever I'd let myself think about it, I knew Claudia and Jamie were putting the adults in their lives through hell. Yes, if I'd been the parent, I'd have been unspeakably thankful and relieved to get them back safe. But I might also have grounded them for about 47 years, and possibly packed them off for a semester at a boarding military academy in northern Alaska as a lesson in family appreciation. (Okay, I might be exaggerating slightly for effect. :-) ) That colored my reaction to the tale in a way that it might not have as a kid. (It's also why I recommend the book only for mature kids, who wouldn't blindly consider these characters role models and be encouraged to run away themselves!)
Interestingly, a book I read last year, Wonderstruck by Brian Selznick (b. 1966) has a similar plot structure: his protagonist is a runaway who sets out for, and hides out in, another real-life New York museum (the American Museum of Natural History). Selznick isn't a Goodreads author, so I don't know if he ever read Konigsburg's classic; but I think it's possible that he did, and that it may have been one of his literary influences. The difference between the two books, though, is instructive (and helps to explain why I rated the later book higher): Selznick's protagonist Ben manages his escape in a way that won't leave his family members insane with worry, and does tell a family member where he's going. And he has a psychological need to go, to deal with a question that's crucially important to him in learning who he is; it's not just a whim, and he doesn't pull a nine-year-old sibling along into the venture.
The edition of this book that I read was a 35-year anniversary reprint, with an afterword by the author, which explained a bit about the models for the characters in her own family, the changes in New York City and the Museum itself since she wrote, some of the inspiration for the story, the reason she never wrote a sequel (and I agree with that decision, because I think this is a story that's truly artistically complete in itself, as it stands) etc.; I enjoyed this feature, and felt it enhanced the book. At the time, she mourned the recent passing of both her husband and her longtime editor, who'd both loved the book. Sadly, Mrs. Konigsburger herself passed away as well, in 2013. But this book alone would be a worthy legacy (and she wrote other prize-winning tales as well!), and I give it a solid rating of three earned stars!...more
My oldest grandson Philip (age 10, the same age as Willy, the protagonist of this very short kid's chapter book) is an avid reader who reads above graMy oldest grandson Philip (age 10, the same age as Willy, the protagonist of this very short kid's chapter book) is an avid reader who reads above grade level, an interest I obviously encourage. He recently read this book himself, and was excited about it enough to want to share his copy so I could read it too. Being about to be between books anyway, and being interested in connecting with him in a shared reading experience, I agreed. It proved to be a very quick read --an adult could read it inside of a half hour. (It has 81 pages, but they're small pages with relatively large text and wide margins, and lots of black-and-white illustrations, this 30th anniversary edition reproducing the original ones by Marcia Sewall.
The deceptively simple but extremely emotionally evocative story was suggested to Gardiner by an actual legend handed down in the area, though vague on names and dates (no date is given in the book, though the details suggest the late 19th century). Jackson, Wyoming is a real town and the annual sled dog race depicted here is also a real event (it was apparently the precursor of today's International Pedigree Stage Stop Sled Dog Race, though the modern race covers a much wider area in two states). Gardiner tells his story with skill, and with an economy of words. His vocabulary and diction should be well within the command of intelligent middle school kids, but the style doesn't have a feeling of being condescending. The characters are easy to like and care about, the stakes in the conflict are high, and the narrative pace perfect for sustaining tension. As short as the book is, it won't bore adult readers; I responded to the story-line basically the same way any reader, young or old, would.
In some ways, the premise here is similar to that of the later Disney movie for adults, Iron Will, though the two story-lines and the settings and exact circumstances are different. The idea that Willy's beloved 10-year-old sled dog Searchlight could be a serious contender in a race like this isn't implausible; Gardiner ably brings out the facts that she was extremely fast and that both dog and boy knew the course well and ran it frequently, while he also makes the points that a one dog sled is lighter and less awkward to handle than the more cumbersome outfits of the adult mushers and their teams. It's impossible to fully understand the emotional impact of the book without a spoiler. (view spoiler)[Searchlight dies near the finish line, her heart failing her at last from the exertion --though the result lifts the story into something other than pointless tragedy. (hide spoiler)] There are those who wouldn't favor letting kids read this, and would brand it as part of "the Marquis de Sade school of children's literature." It was hard for me to take, and I'm 63! But it might also be said that constantly shielding children from the reality of tragedy in the world may produce children (and later, adults) who don't handle the reality of a tragic world very well....more
I ran across a Goodreads First Readers giveaway for this book, and was intriguied by the premise: kid discovers that lycanthropy runs in his family (tI ran across a Goodreads First Readers giveaway for this book, and was intriguied by the premise: kid discovers that lycanthropy runs in his family (this has been done before --and vastly better!-- in the drama form in various movies and TV specials, some of them also aimed at pre-teens). Knowing it was a children's book, I didn't expect a lot of depth; but I did expect it to be a reasonably well-written book for its age bracket, that I could at least like --after all, I was an Are You Afraid of the Dark? fan (as an adult!) in the 90s. (Okay, there wasn't much supernatural fare on TV back then!) But alas, when I unexpectedly won a copy of the book, even that modest expectation was destined to be dashed. :-( If I didn't feel a sense of obligation to review it, I'd never have even bothered to finish it.
This is the kind of self-published book that gives self-publishing a bad name, and the kind of children's book written by people who don't respect the intelligence or taste of children --who think the latter can't tell the difference between a well-crafted story and a helping of thrown-together swill served up with no thought or effort. (If the discernment of today's nine-year-olds actually IS that poor, we as a nation are in even worse shape than I've imagined!) At just 57 pages (with very large type), this isn't long enough to develop as a chapter book, though nine-year-olds are normally getting into chapter reads. The storyline is thin, and the characters cardboard; there's no development of setting (indeed, the geographical settings aren't even specified, although middle-grade readers can and do appreciate a defined setting); and the denouement is so far-fetched that it would have destroyed any chance for suspension of disbelief if I'd read it when I was five, let alone nine. On top of this, Ryans' execution is unbelievably slipshod. She clearly didn't even attempt to proofread, or even to pay attention as she was writing; while the book is mainly written in first person, she often disconcertingly drops into third person (sometimes in the next sentence!), in what appears to be simply heedless carelessness as to what person she's using. We don't learn that Carson is nine until p. 8, or that James and Jenny are his cousins until p. 34(!). The dream sequence appears to have no other function than to confuse the reader. Ryans seemingly never heard of the injunction, "show, don't tell;" and the intended message is stated explicitly with the subtlety of a sledgehammer.
Even though it's April 1, my review of this disaster unfortunately isn't an April Fool's joke. :-( Don't waste time or money on this!...more