April 15, 2010


The Sixty-Eight Rooms. By Marianne Malone. Illustrated by Greg Call. Random House. $16.99.

Calendar Mysteries: #3—March Mischief; #4—April Adventure. By Ron Roy. Random House. $4.99 each.

     Here are some books that are pleasant and interesting rather than dramatic – nice ways to spend some “down time,” if not the sorts of page-turners that you cannot put down once you become engrossed in them. The Sixty-Eight Rooms has an unusual and interesting premise, especially for families living in Chicago or familiar with its museums: the rooms of the title are the Thorne Rooms at the Art Institute of Chicago. They were designed by Mrs. James Ward Thorne and furnished partly with miniatures she bought and partly with furniture created by craftsmen in the 1930s and 1940s. The rooms are a popular exhibit at the museum – but they contain no human figures, since Mrs. Thorne felt that dolls would not look as realistic as the rooms’ miniature furnishings, which reflect a wide variety of styles, tastes and eras. But the fascinating setting is not enough to sustain a book for ages 8-12, so what first-time novelist Marianne Malone does is invent two sixth-graders named Ruthie and Jack who see the rooms on a school field trip – and discover a key that lets Ruthie (and, later, Jack) shrink to hamster size so they can explore the rooms and learn their secrets. And the rooms do have secrets – in the novel, that is – because there has to be some thread of exploration and uncertainty to keep the book moving. So Malone has the protagonists not only visit the rooms but also visit the time periods that the rooms represent; they encounter characters (some real, some imaginary) from different epochs; they are involved in the Salem witch trials and the French Revolution; they find an important journal and learn about an almost-wife of King Henry VIII; and so on. Unfortunately, there is an artificiality to the plotting that fits uneasily with the descriptions of the rooms, which Malone clearly knows and loves – the furnishings are more interesting than the sixth-graders. And the dialogue and narrative style are pedestrian: “‘I’m not going to do that again!’ Ruthie stated when her feet were firmly planted on the ledge. She brushed her hair off her face. ‘But it worked!’ ‘Yeah, but it felt like backward bungee jumping!’ ‘What’s wrong with that?’” The youths’ adventures offer periodic tingles of excitement, and the notion that there can be magic in everyday life if you simply look for it is attractive (although commonplace). But the real attraction here is the exhibit of rooms, not the “official” adventures that Ruthie and Jack have while visiting them.

     March Mischief and April Adventure continue the mystery series that Ron Roy began with January Joker and February Friend, and here as in the earlier books, the stories are pleasant without being gripping. These mysteries for ages 6-9 feature the younger siblings of the kids in the A to Z Mysteries series, with events and writing style suitably simplified. March Mischief focuses on St. Patrick’s Day, April Adventure on Easter (never mind that Easter can also occur in March). The four sleuths here are Bradley, Brian, Nate and Lucy. The March story involves disappearing leprechauns: they are first stolen for a bit of revenge that goes wrong, but then they are stolen from the young thieves, and then the mystery really begins. It turns out to involve a double-cross (or maybe triple-cross) intended to teach a mild lesson, and of course everything turns out just fine. Ditto in April, when instead of leprechauns being stolen, Easter eggs mysteriously disappear. The egg hunt involves finding both plastic eggs (a dozen) and real ones (four), with the real eggs being the ones that have gone missing. There is a nice scene here in which the kids think a snake has eaten the eggs, but the boys are scared to approach it – while Lucy admires its beauty and tells them not to be afraid. That’s a good role reversal. The mystery itself has a bit of a twist, too, and involves the kids getting help from a petting zoo to bring some real eggs to a couple of misguided birds. Again, everything ends happily and there is nothing at all scary or threatening in the story, which is an enjoyable one even though the kids themselves have very little personality.

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