From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E. L. Konigsburg: B

From the back cover:
Twelve-year-old Claudia Kincaid is restless. She wants to do something different, leaving her comfortable suburban life in Connecticut behind for awhile. And she wants to be gone just long enough to teach her parents to appreciate her. But as Claudia plans to run away, not just any place will do. She wants to live in style—in a place with a bit of luxury and some good company. Claudia settles on New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. She invites her younger brother Jamie to come along too, not for companionship, but mostly because he is a miser and has saved up some money.

Unfortunately, the live-in at the museum isn’t all Claudia had hoped. She doesn’t feel any different than before. And soon she finds herself in the middle of an interesting museum mystery. Claudia sees a statue so beautiful that she cannot head back to Connecticut until she discovers its maker. The first clue is the statue’s former owner, Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, an unusual old woman who helps Claudia finally find her way home.

Children’s fiction is pretty hit or miss with me, it seems. Sometimes I love it to pieces, and other times I think I’m too old to really get it. I’m sure it would be fun for a 10-year-old to read about running away or having a secret, and they’d probably identify with all the sibling squabbles and stuff, but a stodgy grown-up like me can’t really get excited about any of it.

It was cute, and the idea that Claudia’s compulsion to run away (with every intention of returning) was all about the search for herself was kind of a subtle one. It’s not like she learned some “valuable lesson” about tolerance or something. It was rather old-fashioned, as one might expect from something penned in the ’60s, and on a few occasions, I’d swear the siblings’ dialogue wouldn’t have been out of place in some sitcom from that era.

I did really enjoy the illustrations done by the author. Claudia and Jamie were modelled after her own children and the drawings add further charm to the story—I particularly like the one where they’re looking rather bored while researching in a library.

I just wish I’d read it when I were younger.

The View from Saturday by E. L. Konigsburg: A-

From the back cover:
Why was Mrs. Olinski’s sixth grade academic bowl team so successful? And why had Mrs. Olinski chosen them in the first place?

Noah, Nadia, Ethan and Julian call themselves The Souls. Each has a story to tell, and within each of their stories is part of the answer. Listen to Noah’s tale of life in Century Village, Nadia’s story of turtle walks, Ethan’s account of high tea at the bed and breakfast inn, and Julian’s story about a dog that becomes a stage star. Taken together, their stories answer the first question, and when intertwined with the story of Mrs. Olinski and their astonishing academic bowl victories, they answer the second—and tell you much, much more.

I listened to The View from Saturday in unabridged audio format, and the makers of this one attempted something a little different than the norm. Instead of one narrator for the entire thing, there were five. One for the frame story, in which the kids are competing in the finals of an academic bowl competition, and then one for each of the kids, as they tell their respective first person stories. The only problem is—these narrators sound too old for sixth graders! Noah’s sounds about 16, and Nadia’s sounds like a throaty 35-year-old! If you’re going to make an effort to provide distinct narrators, as if they are really representing the characters, at least get ones that fit the part! Casting issues aside, however, I do think Nadia’s story benefited from the audio treatment, since the strange, Data-style contraction-free dialogue doesn’t come across as unnaturally as K encountered with the print version.

Now, the book itself. There’s not so much of a plot, necessarily, but more of a gradual introduction of the members of the team, and then finally showing how they interact together. The first story just features one member, the next features two and mentions a third, etc. The stories I enjoyed most were the third and fourth, those of Ethan and Julian, both because those characters are not annoying, and because the whole group has assembled by then. Incidentally, for some weird reason, I keep thinking Ethan’s name is Chris. It should be, dangit!

The connections between the four and their homeroom teacher and coach, Mrs. Olinski, are multi-layered, and though it’s a little bit much at times, reasonable explanations are supplied. I particularly liked that the young narrators often end up discovering some things about other people in their lives aside from their teammates. Nadia’s dad comes off pretty unfavorably in Noah’s tale, but in her own, he gets some depth and earns sympathy. Nadia at first thinks Ethan’s grandma is a meddler, but then is forced to revise her opinion. Each member of the team has his or her own quirks and flaws, and though I really wanted to smack Noah and Nadia at times, I concede that there are undoubtedly 12-year-olds in existence who are as irritating as they are.

Overall, I enjoyed the book and definitely intend to recommend it for kids I know in this age range. There aren’t many books that focus on smart kids, and the team is at least somewhat diverse, so the “all kinds of people can be smart” message is clear. So is the “mean people suck” message. And the “be courteous” message. Which ties into one of my two complaints: the lessons imparted are kind of heavily handled, but since they’re good lessons, it’s hard to be too bothered by it. The second is that some of the questions in the competition are awfully open-ended. I participated in these sorts of contests myself in 10th and 11th grade, and I never heard any that had more than one possible answer. “Name an accomplishment of ____,” for example.