The Sixty-Eight Rooms, by Marianne Malone, has an irresistible premise and a fabulous, eye-catching cover. Two sixth graders, best friends Ruthie and Jack, find a special key while on a field trip to visit the Art Institute in Chicago. When Ruthie holds the key, it allows her to shrink down and enter the fabulous Thorne Rooms, incredibly detailed miniature rooms on display at the museum. In the Thorne Rooms, Ruthie discovers even more magic.
My 9-year-old inner self was captivated by the idea behind this book. I loved miniatures as a child, and spent wonderful hours decorating my doll house with my mother. The fact that the Thorne Rooms are real makes the book that much more appealing.There are also echoes of The Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler to The Sixty-Eight Rooms. An overnight adventure in a museum is tougher to pull off in this day and age (with motion detectors and the like), but Moore clearly spent time working out all of the details. Greg Call's black and white illustrations are lovely, and held draw the reader into the story.
However, although I loved the premise and setting, and found The Sixty-Eight Rooms well-researched, I did have some problems with the book's execution. There were a couple of places where the author stepped out of limited third person perspective (showing something that Ruthie couldn't have seen herself), or seemed to be telling instead of showing. There's also a very large coincidence near the end that struck me as unnecessary. These are minor points, but did take me out of the story.
More importantly, the plot seemed to meander a bit. The Sixty-Eight Rooms reads more like the embodiment of a personal fantasy than a novel with a narrative arc. Oh, there are mysteries to be solved, and uncertainty over Jack and his mother's financial solvency. But as Ruthie and Jack explore the rooms, they kind of just go from one to the next, and have a little adventure here, and another little adventure there. It felt like Moore was so excited to describe the rooms that she let the setting/premise get in the way of the story.
But then again, the very appeal of The Sixty-EIght Rooms lies in that wish fulfillment. The idea that magic could be found anywhere, and could happen to otherwise ordinary children. Here are a couple of examples:
"When Ruthie was little, she had always loved fairy tales. Now that she no longer believed in those stories, she wondered what living in the time of knights and kings and queens might have been like. And here she was standing in a room that looked exactly as she had imagined that world to look. For the first time in her life, Ruthie felt extraordinary.
It was a relief to be inside a space that was her scale again, and her dizziness lifted. There was a big stained-glass window to her right and a carved stone fireplace to her left. The floor was made of different kinds of wood in squares that formed an elaborate geometric pattern... But the most impressive thing to Ruthie was the giant (to a five-inch-tall girl) canopy bed covered in silvery green silk." (Page 39)
"Soon the five-inch-tall duo found themselves scaling the wall like a pair of four-legged spiders racing to the top. In their miniaturized state they were so light that they hardly pulled on the strip of tape at all." (Page 159)
Although I had some issues with the book, I do think that kids will find The Sixty-Eight Rooms appealing. I'm interested to read the second book in the series, Stealing Magic, to see if there's a more structured plot. Recommended for anyone who finds the idea of shrinking down to a 1" to 1' scale and visiting historically accurate miniature rooms compelling.
Publisher: Random House Books for Young Readers (@RandomHouseKids)
Publication Date: February 23, 2010
Source of Book: Review copy from the publisher
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