Wednesday, January 29, 2014

From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler

One of my all-time favorites!  My 5th grade teacher read this to us after lunch, a chapter a day, and I hung on every word.  Today, reading it my own students, I am just as entertained by the adventures of Claudia and Jamie Kincaid, just as fascinated by the highly intelligent, acerbic Mrs. Frankweiler, and my students are just as scandalized as my classmates and I were by the picture of Claudia and Jamie bathing in the fountain in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

E.L. Konigsburg is a master storyteller.  Go ahead and click the link and read her profile - normally I don't use Wikipedia, but it seems to have the most info about this interesting writer.  She has a way of creating characters who are real to the children who read them.  She crafts this tale as a letter to her attorney, Saxonberg, to explain the changes she is requesting in her will.

Claudia Kincaid is a 12-year old girl who is sick and tired of being ordinary, tired of having to do "everything" at home.  She decides to run away from home to teach her parents a lesson in Claudia Appreciation.

Her plan is amazingly well thought out and illustrates Claudia's intelligence quite clearly.  She chooses her younger brother Jamie to be her companion for some interesting reasons.  Jamie agrees under the misconception that they will be running away in the traditional sense - wandering outdoors with their knapsacks on their backs, building campfires and sleeping under the stars.  Boy, is he in for a surprise.  Claudia has planned for them to run away to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.  Unfortunately for Jamie, he didn't think to ask where they were going until AFTER they left home :)

The children have an ingenious plan that allows them to stash their belongings and sleep in the Met, a strategy that would never work in today's world, which makes it all the more interesting to today's students.  While there, they have the opportunity to view the museum's newest acquisition, a sculpture of an angel, which is an auction purchase that came from the art collection of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler.  The sculptor's identity is unknown but some experts believe it to be the work of the great Michaelangelo.  Claudia is entranced by the beautiful sculpture and sets out to discover if Michaelangelo is indeed the sculptor.

As she and Jamie investigate the mystery of Angel, they hit dead end after dead end and find themselves low on cash.  Disheartened, Claudia agrees that they must go home.  As they prepare to buy their bus tickets home, Claudia suddenly decides they must pay a visit to the reclusive Mrs. Frankweiler, convinced that she is their last shot at finding the answer.

Mrs. Frankweiler is a crafty old gal and figures out that they are the runaways she has been reading about in the newspaper.  She wants information, they want information - hmmm.  She manages to get the information she needs from Jamie without much effort, but still offers them some hope at getting the information they came for.  She sets them loose in her file room, and this brings us to the name of the book.  The kids have to figure out her filing system in order to find out if Michaelangelo is the sculptor - and they have a time limit. 

Claudia is a clever girl and figures it out.  Mrs. Frankweiler agrees to leave the proof to them in her will IF they promise not to ever tell anyone else. 

I won't be a spoiler and tell you the fun reveal at the end of the story, but let me encourage you to read From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, with or without a youngster.  The characters are well-developed, the plot is intriguing and engaging, and the setting provides lots of opportunities to talk about the good old days.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

By the Great Horn Spoon

Learning about the California Gold Rush is the highlight of Social Studies in 4th grade.  At least I like to think so :) 

There are only a couple of really good historical fiction books out there about this time period, Patty Reed's Doll: The Story of the Donner Party being (arguably) the most popular, and  though my school had a class set of Patty Reeds when I started teaching 4th grade, another set of books caught my eye.  I opened the dusty cover, read a few pages and never looked back.  By the Great Horn Spoon, by Sid Fleischman, has been delighting 4th graders at my school ever since.  They beg for more at the end of each chapter, gasp, cheer, and groan along the way, feeling as though they are part of the story at every turn.

The story begins on the Lady Wilma, a gold ship bound for San Francisco, California.  We learn that two stowaways are aboard ship, a butler and a young boy. They meet the crusty, but soft-hearted Captain Swain, admit to being stowaways and accept their punishment - to spend the duration of the journey below decks, shoveling coal into the furnaces.

The author then flashes back to Boston earlier in the week when young Jack Flagg learns that his guardian, the young and beautiful Aunt Arabella, will soon be broke.  Eleven-year old Jack decides to solve this problem by making his way to California to fill his pockets with gold and save the family home and honor.  The family's trusty butler, Praiseworthy, figures out what is going on and chooses to accompany Jack on his adventure. 

We find ourselves in the present again, enjoying the journey as Jack and Praiseworthy travel around Cape Horn to San Francisco, travel up the river to Sacramento and take a stagecoach to Hangtown.  They outwit villains, solve a myriad of problems, make colorful new friends, earn nicknames from the other miners, and explore the area I live in while searching for gold (this might has something to do with the way I feel about this book ;) 

My classes love learning about our hometown and the surrounding areas.  We map their ascent from Sacramento to Placerville as we read about it, we map their journey from Hangtown (Placerville) to Coloma, and we compare photos of our area then and now.

As readers, we watch hard work, danger, and determination season Praiseworthy and Jack, recasting their relationship and opening their minds to new possibilities for their futures.

Praiseworthy is aptly named and earns his moniker many times over during their exploits.  He is astute, mannered, calm, proper, and becomes a true role model for Jack, who begins to see some of the fine gentleman's traits in himself.

I won't write any spoilers, but I will say that it is a very satisfying ending that leaves my class cheering each and every year.