The Sixty-Eight Rooms by debut author Marianne Malone and illustrated by Greg Call, best known for brilliantly bringing Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson's Peter and the Starcathcers series to life. The Sixty-Eight Rooms is the story of Chicago residents Jack and Ruthie and an amazing discovery they make while on a field trip to the Art Institute of Chicago. While visiting the Thorne Miniature Rooms they stumble upon a key that enables them to shrink to the size that is just right for exploring the rooms from the inside, instead of viewing them from the outside!
I was immediately drawn to this book because I have seen the Thorne Miniature Rooms a handful of times and they are completely and totally entrancing, so much so it is a wonder that an author has not thought up a story surrounding them before now. These miniature rooms were conceived by Mrs Narcissa Niblack Thorne and painstakingly constructed on a one inch to one foot scale by master craftsmen according to her specifications over the course of eight years, from 1932 and 1940. The rooms are historical representations of life in America, Asia and Europe, spanning the time period from the 16th century up to the 1940s. Many of the decorations for the rooms were collected by Mrs Thorne herself during her extensive travels. After being displayed in many fairs, including the World's Fair in NYC in 1940, sixty-eight of the mrs Thorne's rooms were donated to the Art Institute of Chicago. Apparently, there are more collections of Thorne Rooms in four other museums, including 29 that reside in the Knoxville Museum of Art.
While visiting the Art Institute of Chicago on a school trip, Ruthie and Jamie (thanks to a behind the scenes peek from museum guard, Mr Bell) find a key that, when Ruthie holds it, causes her to shrink to a size that makes her a perfect fit for the Throne Rooms. From there, Jack and Ruthie concoct a plan that will allow them to sneak into the service corridor behind the rooms (which are set into a wall) and explore. Once the plan is in action, Ruthie realizes that she can shrink Jack as well and the two set off, which is a good thing since Jack seems to have the MacGyver skills needed to navigate some of the trickier parts of their adventure. Once inside the rooms, Ruthie discovers a journal that offers some clues to the mystery of the key and its magical properties. The two also discover that, in some of the rooms, they can actually step outside and into history. They meet Sophie Lacombe, a young girl living outside of Paris during the years before the French Revolution who keeps a diary that sits atop her writing desk. They also step out into 17th century Massachusetts at the height of the witch hunts.
Ruthie discovers some odd items hidden throughout the rooms - a yellow pencil, a pink barrette, and finally a backpack, that lead her to believe others have been here before her. Taking the backpack and Sophie's journal with her, the two leave the rooms and begin to investigate the whys and the hows of their adventure. Mr Bell, the museum guard, was also a very famous photographer who gave up his career just as it was taking off when his wife died and the masters of his prints disappeared, making showing or selling his work impossible. The backpack that Ruthie finds holds the album with these master prints in it and she is able to return it to Mr Bell, who's career is resurrected and his daughter, now grown woman and pediatrician, is absolved for losing them in the rooms in the first place - although this fact remains a secret between Ruthie, Jack and Caroline Bell. An antiques dealer and old family friend, Mrs McVittie, just happens to speak and read French and, when the children bring her Sophie's diary for translating, along with a made-up story about how they got it, she sees right through them - especially because, as a young girl, she and her sister saw the Throne Rooms at the New York World's Fair, found the key and had their own adventure. Afterwards, Mrs McVittie's sister denies all of it and she beings to wonder if her memories are imagined. Ultimately, she is grateful to have them confirmed by Ruthie and Jack's confession. The kids fall behind in school because of their adventures in the Thorne Rooms and are given an extra credit assignment to write a research paper on the rooms. Their teacher, Mrs Biddle, just happens to have a good friend who works in the archives and owes her a favor, so Jack, Ruthie and Ruthie's dad get to pore over Mrs Thorne's notes and diagrams. There is also a minor plot about Jack's mother, and artist who is not quite able to support herself and her child with her work, and how her life is turned around with the (secret) help of Ruthie's mother.
All of these elements come together to make a fine story, but, as a critically minded adult reader of children's fantasy, I finished the book feeling like it could have been so much more. With some more intense plot developments and in depth character development, the historical and fantasy aspects of the story could have been something along the lines of Linda Buckley-Archer's Time Quake Trilogy. However, ultimately I think that The Sixty-Eight Rooms is perfect and very valuable just as it is because of the niche that it fills. There are plenty of 400 page fantasy novel trilogies and series for kids that are intense, suspenseful and stocked with very evil bad guys who are probably frightening to many young readers. The popularity of the these kinds of Harry Potter inspired fantasy novels for kids leaves many readers with few options when it comes to fantasy and books like Marianne Malone's give young readers options. Magic doesn't always have to happen in England and involve dragons, wands and sorcerers - it can happen in your own room or in the museum downtown. And, sometimes it is this kind of magic that expands reader's imagination more than others. I look forward to reading more about Ruthie and Jack and there adventures in the Thorne Rooms, and I especially hope we learn more about Christina, Duchess of Milan, the creator of the magic key, and maybe even some of the adventures Mrs Mc Vittie and her sister had.
For those of you interested in the Thorne Rooms, the catalogue that consumed Ruthie's interest and was a resource to Marianne Malone is still in print. Also, The New York Times recently ran an article titled Modern Design, in Miniature, Is Growing which features adult collectors of modern doll houses and their collections as well as links to their blogs where they take pictures of their creations!
Miniature Rooms: The Thorne Rooms at the Art Institute of Chicago by Fannia Weingartner.
READERS WHO ENJOYED THIS BOOK MIGHT ALSO LIKE:
From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs Basil E Frankweiler by EL Konigsberg
Masterpiece by Elise Broach
Chasing Vermeer by Blue Balliet
Look for the next book in the Sixty-Eight Rooms Adventure Series: Stealing Magic,
due out January 24, 2012!