Mixed-Up Meandering

 A fellow on Twitter the other day said the number of children’s books being published every year is overwhelming, so how can anyone possibly choose which ones to read? He makes a fair point: there are a lot of good books out there, with more being added all the time. We each depend on some sort of filtering process to choose books—recommendations from friends; books that win awards; books by familiar authors; books about ghosts, or horses or Revolutionary War heroes; lists compiled by the contributors to this site.

Last summer, I went on a library scavenger hunt to see what treasures I could turn up in a “random search.” Here’s a fun way to generate a slightly more personalized (but just as serendipitous) reading list:

Imagine one of those vintage Family Circus cartoons where a dotted line traces a path through the neighborhood, crisscrossing, circling, and doubling back on itself as Billy explores every possible diversion between point A and point B.

Now, take any favorite book as your “neighborhood”—the one I’ve chosen is a middle-grade novel you may have heard of: From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. We’re going to meander through Ms. Konigsburg’s award-winning story, following our noses, investigating interesting side roads suggested by the setting, plot and characters. (Well, actually, we’ll follow my nose, which may lead in an entirely different direction from your nose, but that’s sort of the point.)

The first thing my nose notices is New York City: Mixed-Up Files is absolutely rooted in the Big Apple. There are dozens of children’s books set in New York, of course, but a few come to mind that, like Mixed-Up Files, depend particularly on the ambiance of the city: The Cricket in Times Square, by George Selden; Stuart Little, by E. B. White; A Rat’s Tale, by Tor Seidler; Remember Me to Harold Square (featuring a city-wide scavenger hunt!), by Paula Danziger; and last year’s Newbery winner, When You Reach Me, by Rebecca Stead.

Serendipity alert: Did you know that the archetypal holiday movie, Miracle on 34th Street, was based on Valentine Davies’ 1947 novel of the same name? Neither did I!

Maybe it’s not the city but the museum setting that interests you most. You might want to check out The Court of the Stone Children, by Eleanor Cameron, or the novelizations of the recent Night at the Museum movies—or even (another serendipity alert!) the picture book by Milan Trenc that inspired the films in the first place. (If you’ll allow me one more picture book mention in this middle-grade blog, You Can’t Take a Balloon into the Metropolitan Museum, by Jacqueline Preiss Weitzman and Robin Preiss Glasser, filled with lovely ink and watercolor images of the city, is a perfect companion to Mixed-Up Files.)

I particularly enjoyed James and Claudia’s visit to the Egyptian Wing of the museum, so Zilpha Keatley Snyder’s The Egypt Game, and Blossom Culp and the Sleep of Death by Richard Peck both go on my list.

The art mystery at the center of Mixed-Up Files brings to mind two books by Blue Balliett: Chasing Vermeer and The Calder Game . . . or Masterpiece, by Elise Broach.

Are you caught up in the romance of running away? Try Jean Craighead George’s classic, My Side of the Mountain, about a 12-year-old running away from rather than toward the sophisticated environments of New York City.

Ranging farther afield: when I think of books set in New York, I naturally think of the original Eloise (“a book for precocious grown ups”). Eloise and her hotel remind me of Roald Dahl’s The Witches (also set in a hotel). James and Claudia’s lunch at the automat reminds me of my seventh grade train trip to New York (where we were treated to lunch at the automat)—which suggests books that feature trains: The Neddiad, by Daniel Pinkwater; The Nine Pound Hammer (first in the Clockwork Dark series), by John Claude Bemis; and this year’s Newbery winner, Moon Over Manifest, by Clare Vanderpool.

One thing leads to another: Masterpiece’s tiny protagonist recalls The Indian in the Cupboard, by Lynne Reid Banks; The Borrowers by Mary Norton; and the ultimate bug story: Shoebag, by Mary James.

I could go on and on . . . I have gone on and on. Somebody stop me!

Here are the pretty covers of the 25 (!) books mentioned on our Mixed-Up Files ramble:

Bonnie Adamson is glad she’ll never run out of book neighborhoods to wander through.

  1. What a cool idea! AND a great list of books. I will definitely try this the next time I’m at the library.

  2. I love this idea & can’t wait to make my own list! Such a neat idea!

  3. Here are some more New York City-set MG that I recently discovered and adore!

    OLIVIA KIDNEY by Ellen Potter. It’s a trilogy about Olivia living in NYC apartments with her dad who is the handy-man and ghosts and quirky neighbors. So much fun.

  4. That’s a great roundabout collection!
    They filmed the movie version of My Side of the Mountain outside of Montreal, so I always remember it as being a Canadian thing. Should have read the book I guess [g]

  5. Thanks for the comments and suggestions. Bev, I’m adding these to my list–and, Katie, what fun about Ivy and Bean!

    I kept thinking six degrees of separation, too. That would be a fun game, sometime, from the other direction: take a random list of books and see if you can find the connections. Hmmm . . .

  6. It’s six degrees of separation, except with books!

    I was reading an “Ivy and Bean” book to my 6 year old. In it, they base their runaway plan on “The Mixed up Files.” Instead of the museum, they plan to stay overnight in an aquarium until their dreaded dance recital is over. Unfortunately for them, the fountain with the money in it also has alligators and instead of Michelangelo, they get a giant squid.

  7. What an interesting way to explore books!

  8. ANother great train book that was on a lot of mock newbery lists last year was WHEN THE WHISTLE BLOWS (Fran Cannon Slayton). A Chicago museum book AND miniature book is THE SIXTY-EIGHT ROOMS (Malone). And two more runaway books are BUD, NOT BUDDY (Christopher Paul Curtis) and my own HAVEN (Beverly Patt).
    Love this meandering, scavenger hunt approach!

  9. These are all awesome suggestions! I’ve read most of them, but there are couple I need to add to my to-read list!

  10. Great list! I love going on Amazon, typing in a book title, and then scrolling through the other recommended books. It’s always interesting to see what titles it brings up and discover new books.