Seven great escapes in children’s literature
by Nick Davies
E.L. Konigsburg, author of the classic children’s book From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, which tells the story of a brother and sister who run away to live in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, passed away last Friday. While the details of the story are fuzzy to me now (particularly why a couple of runaway kids would choose the Met over, say, the Museum of Natural History), I remember the novel fondly. It plays on wish fulfillment for its young readers, and the fantasy of running away from home to live somewhere more special; and unlike Narnia or Never Never Land, a museum is actually accessible, and Konigsburg made the fantasy world tangible and all the more tantalizing to kids reading her book.
In honor of Konigsburg’s work, here’s a slideshow of seven books about the places that kids escape to in books—some real and tangible like the Met, others pure fantasy.
From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L. Konigsburg
The Metropolitan Museum of Art. In Konigsburg’s classic, Claudia and Jamie Kincaid run away from home to live at the Met, sleeping in an antique bed and bathing in the fountain.
The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster
The Kingdom of Wisdom. Protagonist Milo drives his toy car through the titular tollbooth into a world of magic, learning, and so, SO many puns. The Spelling Bee! The noisy Awful DYNNE! The Senses Taker! It’s glorious.
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl
Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory. Charlie Bucket escapes his Dickensian home life to tour the fantastical factory, and eventually gets to keep the whole place for himself. Oh, and in the sequel, he and his family escape to outer space in the Great Glass Elevator, but that’s more of a harrowing experience (aliens are involved) than whimsical escapism.
The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum
Oz. Unlike the film adaptation, the Oz in Baum’s prolific series of books is a real place—not a dream. It’s also surprisingly politicized, and while Dorothy Gale spends most of her time trying to get home, it’s a welcome change of pace from her home in Depression-era Kansas.
The Boxcar Children by Gertrude Chandler Warner
A boxcar. Sure, an abandoned railroad car in the forest doesn’t sound like much, but sometimes the simplest places work the best. It serves as a refuge for four orphans trying to avoid being sent to live with their grandfather until they realize he’s a nice guy who agrees to move their onetime home into his backyard. Chandler’s initial novel became a long-running series, with the kids using the boxcar as their home base as they solve all sorts of neighborhood memories.
Dinotopia by James Gurney
Dinotopia. More or less Jurassic Park if things hadn’t gone all pear-shaped, Dinotopia is a land where humans and sentient dinosaurs live in harmony. A paradise for nerds who wish that Konigsburg’s protagonists had gone to the Natural History Museum instead of the Met.
Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson
Terabithia. Terabithia is unique in its representation of a fantasy world as kids actually create them. Elementary school students Jesse and Leslie imagine a magical kingdom in the woods, where they’re king and queen, as a sanctuary to escape from bullies and a mundane life. This book is ultimately heartbreaking (if you haven’t read it already, don’t attempt to do so without a box of tissues), but its depiction of the way that Jesse and Leslie create their own world is absolutely spot-on.
Nick Davies is a publicist at Melville House.