In which Annie (high school teacher, mother of two young girls and a younger boy) and her aunt Deborah (children's bookseller, mother of two young women in their 20s) discuss children's books and come up with annotated lists.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Night at the museum, in miniature

Dear Aunt Debbie,

After our recent visit with you in Washington D.C., you sent us home with a bag full of books and other goodies, which we're still working our way through.  One chapter book in the bunch was clearly something we had to pick up immediately, as it was place-specific, and we were about to travel to exactly the right place.  It turned out to be both a good read and an excellent jumping-off point for a museum visit.

The book is The Sixty-Eight Rooms, by Marianne Malone.  The rooms in question are the Thorne Rooms in the Art Institute of Chicago, 68 historically accurate miniature rooms created in the 1930s by craftsmen under the direction of Mrs. James Ward Thorne.  There are two sets of rooms: the European rooms depict interiors from the late 13th century to the 1930s; the American rooms from the 17th century to the 1930s.  The rooms were built on a scale of one inch to one foot, and the detail in them is astounding, as you can see in this slightly interactive Art Institute "Game of Thornes."

The premise of the book is a good one: best friends Ruthie and Jack, both sixth-graders, discover an ornate key in an access hall to the back of the Thorne Rooms.  When Ruthie picks up the key while standing near the rooms, she feels a magical wind and shrinks down to fit the scale of the rooms, becoming five inches high. With Jack's help, Ruthie gets up into the rooms and begins to explore.  The friends sneak back to the museum for an overnight visit, and discover that if Jack holds Ruthie's hand while she shrinks, he'll shrink too.  Further exploration reveals that there's more magic inside the rooms: a book which speaks to Ruthie, and the discovery that the rooms can serve as portals to the past.  Little people, time travel, sneaking around inside a museum -- there's a lot to keep a reader interested.

Eleanor loved the book, and we ripped through it in just a few days.  The combination of magic and the working through of practical details kept her riveted (how will Jack and Ruthie get up from the floor to the rooms when they're both five inches tall?  Build a staircase of catalogs while normal-sized, and then scale them as little people!).  I found Malone's writing a little flat: lots of dialogue tags like "Jack responded" and explanations of what Ruthie is thinking and feeling, rather than details which might communicate states of mind more organically to a reader.  For this reason, it wasn't the most satisfying read-aloud, though Eleanor's experience of it was quite positive.

We read The Sixty-Eight Rooms while visiting my in-laws in Illinois, and used one of our vacation days to drive in to Chicago and visit the Art Institute to see the Thorne Rooms in person.  Hands down, this was the best thing about reading the book.  Eleanor made a list of the rooms which figured most prominently in the story, and ran from one to the next discovering details that Malone had written about.  She was incredibly excited.  My mother-in-law bought her Miniature Rooms, a catalog/coffee table book of color photos of the rooms, and Eleanor pored over it for days, holding it open on her lap as we finished the book together and imagining other stories for herself. (Clearly, Malone has done this too: there are already two sequels.)

Looks like it's time to break out From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, and take a trip to the Metropolitan Museum next.

Love, Annie

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