As y’all know, here at MUF, we are ALL ABOUT From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler (c’mon, it’s obvious!), so when we heard that Catherine Newman wrote a middle grade novel, One Mixed-Up Night, about two kids who run away and spend the night in IKEA, we knew we had to feature her and her new book. The Massachusetts-based Newman, who is also the author of the kids’ craft book Stitch Camp and writes the blog Ben and Birdy, talked to us about her inspiration for One Mixed-Up Night, what makes middle grade the golden years of reading, and where she dreams of spending the night.
From the Mixed-Up Files of Middle-Grade Authors: What does the novel, Mrs. Basil… mean to you? Did you fantasize about running away to the Met?
Catherine Newman: I was probably ten when I read that book, and yes, yes, yes! I completely fantasized about running away to the Metropolitan Museum of Art! (I grew up in New York City, so I maybe kind of extra-fantasized about it.) I loved the idea of sleeping in that antique bed, pulling coins from the fountain to buy hotdogs… everything. My book’s plot, set in Ikea, is of course what I was going for. It’s my main characters’ favorite book, and it’s what inspired them (and me). Although someone pointed out to me recently that my book also has a little of the picture book Corduroy in it, which is totally true!
MUF: What is it about your novel that speaks to kids so successfully, do you think? Did your own children read it and enjoy it?
CN: Oh, well, gosh. I really do hope it speaks to kids successfully! My daughter Birdy, who is really the person I wrote it for, did love it. I think there’s an undercurrent of nerd-positivity in the book that really speaks to kids who are on the cusp of teenagerhood. (I mean except for, I guess, kids that don’t identify at all with geeky awkwardness. Are there kids like that? Those kids probably don’t need the imaginary friends that a book can offer.) Frankie (short for Francesca) and Walter, the main characters, are bookish kids who decide to do something crazy. I think that’s a combination that lots of kids can relate to, or at least aspire to. Also, they’re really, really good friends, and they take excellent care of each other. I know that my own kids were always craving books where the main characters treated each other kindly.
MUF: What gave you the idea of doing an homage to Mrs. Basil?
CN: I got the idea from the way my son Ben and his long-time best friend Ava used to sit on the couch with the Ikea catalogue for hours on end. (They still do, actually.) They always got so dreamy about it—“If you could live in any of these Ikea rooms, which would it be?”—and maybe that’s what triggered the Mrs. Basil plot overlap. At first I was worried that not that many kids would related to the Ikea obsession, but I can’t tell you how many parents have said to me, “Oh my god! My kids are obsessed with Ikea!” So now I’m not so worried about that.
MUF: What do you hope readers will experience by reading your novel?
CN: Okay, please skip this next part if you’re worried about spoilers: There’s a subplot in the book that’s about grief and healing, and I think that—beyond the fun, fantasy Ikea adventure plot—kids might really enjoy seeing these friends work through something hard together and grow so much, with so much decency. So, I hope they’re entertained, but there’s also something deeper here too, maybe.
MUF: What made you want to write a middle grade novel?
CN: Ah. Two things, mainly. First, my daughter Birdy was middle-grade age when I wrote this book, and I knew so much about the books she loved. Harry Potter, of course, but also books like When You Reach Me by (my idol) Rebecca Stead or The Dragonfly Pool by Eva Ibbotson or Framed (and everything else by Frank Cottrell Boyce). Also books that challenged and inspired her in different ways, like Wonder and Out of My Mind and Counting by Sevens. But the second reason is that, for me, those were the golden years of reading—the years when I was scolded for showing up at the dinner table with Black Hearts in Battersea, or for burying my nose in Harriet the Spy when I was supposed to be doing cartwheels for my grandmother. I have loved books all my life, but there was something special about those middle grades.
MUF: So if you could run off and spend the night anywhere in the world, where would you go? And who would you bring?
CN: Not Ikea! I’m like Frankie and Walter’s parents, who all kind of love-hate Ikea, rather than just loving it like the kids do. Maybe I’d spend the night in Zabar’s, that enormous deli in New York City (I’d eat all the whitefish salad and French cheese). Or at a place with hundreds of cats and kittens, though I don’t know what kind of place that would be! So I would probably pick our campsite at Nickerson Campground, on Cape Cod. Because, besides home (with our cats), that spot, in our tent, is my family’s happiest place.