Book Review: “The Sixty-Eight Rooms” by Marianne Malone

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If copies of From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler and The Castle in the Attic got together in the Hogwarts Library and magically brought forth a baby book, it might be this first installment in what promises to be a nifty series. And to think that it all started in the imagination of a woman named Narcissa. No, that isn’t another Hogwarts reference. I’m speaking of an honest-to-history Narcissa who spent a lifetime, to say nothing of a considerable fortune, collecting miniature works of art and assembling them into a series of tiny scale models of historic rooms from Europe to America and around the world. Her name was Narcissa Niblack Thorne, and the sixty-eight rooms in this book’s title are the Thorne Rooms (not a typo) on display at the Art Institute of Chicago.

There are actually more than 68 of these amazing works of art, if you count the ones displayed in other museums, but many children who have visited the collection in Chicago would agree that however many of them there may be, these miniature rooms are magical. While the rooms are real, the magic in this book comes from the imagination of an author who fell in love with the Thorne Rooms at age six, when her artist mother brought her to the Art Institute for the first time. Now an artist, a mother, and a teacher herself, Marianne Malone leads us into a world of magic discovered by only a few lucky children in each generation.

The present-day pair are best friends Ruthie and Jack, who discover an enchanted key that (in Ruthie’s hands, at least) enables them to shrink down to just the right size to fit the scale of the Thorne Rooms. But even this discovery, and the after-hours mischief in the museum that it leads to, isn’t all the magic has in store for them. For soon it seems that time travel will also be on the itinerary. Jack and Ruthie touch the lives of children in other eras of history, as well as a heartbroken man and a wistful old lady in present-day Chicago.

Jack and Ruthie are adorable but imperfect kids. They mean well, but they make mistakes. To make their magical dreams come true, they find it necessary to lie to their parents and break a number of other rules that exist for good reason. Ruthie feels guilty about this, but she is too caught up in the magic to stop. Nevertheless the kids face some pretty sobering problems, including uncertainty about whether they hurt the people they visited in the past, not to mention some dangerous wall-climbing adventures (revealing yet another use for duct tape) and a scary battle against a giant bug. They respond to all these challenges with a combination of courage and clever problem-solving skills, and above all with the sweetness of spirit that makes them the right people for the magic to choose. If you choose to join them on their strange adventure, prepare to make some wonderful new friends. And if you find it hard to say goodbye to them, cheer up. A sequel is coming in 2012, titled Stealing Magic.