Writing to her lawyer Saxonberg, Mrs. Frankweiler explains that she found his last visit quite dull, because he cares for nothing except his grandchildren, the law, and taxes. She is writing to him now to explain certain changes that she wants to make in her last will and testament. She also remarks that he probably never knew she could write this well, but she has spent a lot of time on this file.
The narrative then shifts from first person to third person. Claudia Kincaid has decided to run away, but she does not want to simply sprint off into the wilderness with a backpack. She likes luxury and being indoors, so she decides that she will escape to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
She has saved her allowance and has chosen her middle brother Jamie to accompany her. He is quiet, good company, and has saved almost every penny he has ever gotten.
Claudia is careful to save money for train fare from the suburbs into the city. She has decided to run away because of the injustice she perceives in her family: she has to do all the chores while her brothers get away with everything. Additionally, she is bored with her calm, monotonous life. However, Claudia does intend to return to her home after her parents learn a lesson in Claudia-appreciation; this means she must save enough for a return ticket as well.
Claudia prepares for her trip to New York City, studying maps and tour guidebooks, and practicing dealing with the hardships involved in her adventure by giving up hot fudge sundaes.
One day, while emptying the waste baskets – a task she despises, and further evidence of the injustice committed against her in her family – Claudia finds a ten-ride ticket in the garbage with only nine rides punched out. Their cleaning lady, who comes every Friday, must have accidentally thrown it away.
This discovery means that Claudia will be able to depart on her adventure far earlier than anticipated, so she resolves to tell her brother Jamie of her plan the next day.
On the bus, Jamie likes to play a card game called ‘war’ with his friend Bruce. They play the game every day, but when they leave the bus, they promise to keep their cards in the same order - even spitting on each other's decks to seal the promise. Claudia does not feel guilty about pulling Jamie away from this game.
Claudia grandly tells her brother that she has chosen him to accompany her on the adventure of a lifetime. Jamie is less than excited. Through flattery, Claudia persuades him that he was chosen, and he agrees to accompany her.
She explains the plan: they will depart on Wednesday (which is music-lessons day), and fill their instrument cases with all the clothes they will need. Then, falsely casual, she asks Jamie how much money he has. Jamie is suspicious at first, and explains that his game of war with Bruce also involves betting. Currently he has a sum of twenty-four dollars and forty-three cents, an astonishing sum for the children.
Claudia promises that she will leave a note with more detailed instructions under Jamie’s pillow. Jamie offers to eat the note after reading it in order to destroy the evidence, but Claudia says this is not necessary.
The bus stops, and Claudia irritably walks with her littlest brother, Kevin, looking forward to the day that she can leave them all behind.
Just as Claudia had promised, Jamie finds a detailed list of instructions under his pillow. And just as he had promised, after carefully following all of her instructions to pack and prepare, Jamie attempts to eat the piece of paper. He only gets a few bites in before he discovers that eating paper is not only disgusting, but that it also turns his teeth blue.
The next day, Jamie and Claudia meet up again on the bus. They hide on the bus until everyone else leaves. When the bus arrives at the parking lot, they depart, dodging the attention of the bus driver, Herbert. However, this smooth departure is marred by a loud clanging sound: it turns out that Jamie has brought his twenty-four dollars and forty-three cents with him in the form of coins, which jangle loudly in his pocket.
Jamie has also brought his compass, as he expects that the two of them will be hiding out in the woods. Claudia, rather frustrated, explains to him that they are actually going to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. Jamie thinks this is a rather crazy idea, but he is still onboard. Jamie also thinks that the train is not a very exciting way to commence their adventure, but Claudia pulls him onward.
Claudia also mails two letters: one to her mother and father, informing them that she and Jamie have run away and they shouldn't call the FBI; the other to a cereal company, mailing back box tops for a 25-cent reward.
The train station is very close to the bus stop. They board the train, and the trip is uneventful, save for Jamie constantly suggesting that they should hide out in Central Park. However, by the time they arrive in Grand Central Station, Claudia is still glad that she brought her brave brother with her on this great adventure.
Mrs. Frankweiler reveals herself in the beginning as the silent narrator of the book through her letters, making this at least in part an epistolary novel. However, she quickly bows out of the narrative, though she does make her presence felt throughout the text by offering sharp observations to Saxtonberg.
The cost of particular items does date the book - it would be very difficult today to find a hot fudge sundae for 27 cents. A link that converts the currency of the 1960s to its modern day equivalents is provided in the “Related Links” section of this ClassicNote.
There are no particularly close relationships between the Kincaid children. On page 12, the author mentions that they do not even walk to the bus station together. Claudia's decision to bring Jamie with her is based more on practicality than emotion: she knows that he has the money to finance their trip. Moreover, the parents do not appear in either of these chapters as anything more than vague presences; Claudia's mother and father seem to have little impact on her life other than laying down demands for chores and such. Perhaps Claudia is running from a very emotionally bankrupt situation.
Chapters 1 and 2 build the characters of Jamie and Claudia. Despite the fact that she will not actually be able to use the 25-cent reward from the box top to find her adventure, Claudia decides to mail it anyway, which confirms her character as a perpetual planner. As she points out to Jamie, they had just finished the cereal that morning and so she could not have taken it with her to fund their adventure.