Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Runaways, technology, clues, and mystique

I read From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler when I was your age, and I adored it. I loved its crazy long title. I loved the idea of running away and getting away with it.  I had visited New York City, and to me, it was an overwhelming, exciting, thrilling, frightening place, and Claudia disappeared right into the middle of it! She hid in plain sight inside the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I loved her bath in the fountain, when they scooped up the coins they found. (But I thought Claudia taking a bath with her brother was CREEPY! My only brother is 14 years older than me. Needless to say, we never shared a bath. YUCK!) 
I would have been your age, Chenery Fifth Graders (or CFG for short), in around 1984, and at that time, FTMUFOMBEF (that’s how I’ll abbreviate the book title) had already been in print for seventeen years, but I would have thought it was brand-new, if I didn’t look at the copyright information. This book is now 45 years old! And yet it feels almost as new to me today as it did when I read it 28 years ago. That’s how we know a book’s going to last a long time, and be an important classic for years to come. It has a timeless quality.
As I read FTMUFOMBEF now, I think, “But this wouldn’t work today. Security cameras in the train station and in the museum would spot Claudia and Jamie almost instantly. They wouldn’t get away with their escape.” Here’s a train station security camera. Looks like a lamp, doesn’t it? 

  Technology constantly changes our world. It makes many new things possible, like rapid travel, communication, and information sharing. It makes many other things impossible, like living overnight in a major museum without getting caught. When we’re not sure of when a book takes place, we look first to technology to give us clues. Do people travel by airplanes? Do they use cars, or take horses & carriages? Transportation technology! If there’s a battle, do they fight with swords, guns, or lasers? Weapons technology! To communicate, do they send letters, dispatch telegrams, make phone calls, send emails and texts, or beam a holographic image? Communications technology! Pay attention as you read to technology clues to solve the mystery of when stories take place.
And speaking of clues and mysteries, I love that Claudia and Jamie solved a centuries-old mystery that had stumped adults: Did the great artist Michelangelo sculpt the statue of the angel? [ ] This mystery had romance to it. I don’t mean the kissy-kissy kind. I mean it was a thrilling, significant, special, one-of-a-kind mystery, the kind that grabbed hold of Claudia – and me! – and wouldn’t let go. Great artists and great figures from history are surrounded by a special mystery all their own. We use a French word to describe it: mystique. Mystery may puzzle our brains, but mystique captures our imaginations and emotions. It’s one thing for a detective to find a stolen set of pearls. It’s quite another thing for the stolen set of pearls to have been given by the Emperor Napoleon to his wife, Josephine. Those pearls have mystique. They have romance (and not because Napoleon kissed Josephine, though I’m pretty sure he did. YUCK!). Nearly all good stories possess some element of mystery. When you’re writing your own stories, look for ways to turn mystery into mystique. Here’s a picture of a pearl and cameo necklace worn by the Empress Josephine:

(If you enjoyed the mystery and mystique of FTMUFOMBEF, you might also enjoy reading Chasing Vermeer by Blue Balliett and Shakespeare’s Secret by Elise Broach.) 
So, CFG, here are our writing prompts for FTMUFOMBEF:
·         Write a story about someone running away from home. Think about these things: Who’s running away? What is it that drives your character to want to escape their present life? What will they bring with them? What will they wish they had brought with them? How will leaving home and living on their own change them, in good ways and maybe not-so-good ways? Write the story.
·         Write a scene where a character is unexpectedly thrust into a different time (the future, or the past) and pay special attention to the strange technologies that he or she finds there. What opportunities will these technologies give them? (For example: riding a horse is slower than traveling by car, but it’s ten times more awesome (except it can make your bottom sore)). Spaceships that can fly near the speed of light – also awesome. GPS satellite technology means you can find your way around in the world (awesome). It also means that spies, police, and others can find you (not awesome if you’re trying to hide). Plan your story, plan your technology, and write the scene.
·         Write a story about a team of two characters who go on an adventure and grow closer to each other along the way. Maybe they’re siblings, like Claudia and Jamie. Or maybe they even begin as rivals or enemies, but because they need to cooperate in order to survive, they learn to get along, and maybe even care about each other. What could make two people become friends who didn’t start out wanting to be friends? Write the story.
·         If you could pick an amazing place to go disappear for a while, where would you go?  Claudia pictured the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It was a great choice: it was huge, elegant, fascinating, large enough to conceal two clever, hiding children, and free and open to the public (today you have to pay to get in). Pick an amazing place to live in secret, and write a story about someone living there. Imagine that it, too, was free to get in and out of (even if, in fact, it isn’t), and that there were no security cameras that would find your runaway. Where would you send your character? What would the best parts be about living there? What challenges would your character face in living there? Write the story.
·         Develop a mystery and give it some mystique. You could write about something valuable that gets lost, or something found (like the Angel statue) that needs its value proven. You could write about finding clues that solve ancient mysteries. Buried treasure has mystique, especially when it was buried by someone powerful (like a pharaoh) or famous (like Blackbeard). Artifacts from the past have mystique (like swords belonging to famous warriors, or jewelry worn by queens, or works of art created by the great masters of yesterday). You can use real figures from the past (like Michelangelo, Shakespeare, Caesar, Cleopatra, Napoleon, and Josephine) or you can invent figures who exist in the past in your stories (like Emperor Bob, who ruled over the Empire of Bobbydom, and was married to, um, the Empress Bobette. Okay, those names have no mystique whatsoever. I know you can do better than that.) Write your story and have fun!
·         Bonus prompt: Draw a picture of where you would hide if you were running away into a crowded place.
© 2012 Julie Berry