This is book # 9 read for MotherReader's 2009 48 Hour Book Challenge (8th read start to finish). I spent 2 hours reading and 40 minutes reviewing it. I've been meaning to read Elise Broach's Masterpiece for a while, but I added it to my plans for this weekend after it won the 2009 E.B. White Read Aloud Award for older readers. And, oh am I glad that I did. Masterpiece is wonderful! It's the type of book that ought to become a classic over time, set alongside The Borrowers and A Cricket in Times Square.
Masterpiece is the story of an unlikely friendship between a young beetle named Marvin and an eleven-year-old boy named James Pompaday. Marvin lives with his family under the kitchen sink of the Pompaday's New York apartment. James lives with his mother, stepfather, and baby brother, with occasional visits by his artist father. When James' father gives him a pen and ink set for his birthday, James is less than thrilled. But when Marvin uses the ink to draw an amazing miniature drawing, one which is assumed to have been completed by James, an adventure begins. An adventure involving a New York art museum, and the work of the artist Albrecht Durer. (A historical note at the end of the book clarifies real vs. fictionalized details.)
There is much to love about this book. Kelly Murphy's black and white illustrations are a perfect complement to the story. Murphy manages to convey Marvin's movement and personality, despite his lack of a visible mouth, through the configuration of his arms and antennae and his wide eyes. My favorite illustration is one from Chapter 11 of Marvin lying on his stomach, head propped up in two of his arms, starting entranced at a reproduction of a drawing. It shows how Marvin truly appreciates art.
Elise Broach does an excellent job of balancing world-building with keeping the story moving forward. There are lots of details about the lives of the beetles in the Pompaday household - the types of things they collect, the scraps of food that they eat, the ways that they travel around the house. But in several cases, even when I thought that she was just giving us more background, she was actually laying the groundwork for some skill that Marvin would need to solve the mystery. I thought it was very nicely done.
Broach is also adept (as illustrated in her novel Shakespeare's Secret) at getting real-world facts across to the reader, without the book feeling even the slightest bit didactic. James and Marvin learn about Durer, about several famous art thefts, and about how forgeries are made, all without slowing the momentum of the story. And she gets more subtle points across about art, too, and how it can fill people up. Here's the scene in which Marvin makes his first picture:
"The ink flowed smoothly off his legs across the page. Though he'd never done anything like this before, it seemed completely natural, even unstoppable. He kept glancing up, tracing the details of the scene with his eyes, then transferring them onto the paper. It was as if his legs had been waiting all their lives for this ink, this page, this lamp-lit window view. There was no way to describe the feeling. It thrilled Marvin to his very core." (Chapter 4)
Isn't that lovely? But the heart of this story, what makes it special, remains the friendship between Marvin and James. Marvin can't even talk to James - the two have to figure out other ways of communicating. They have their occasional bumps in the road, but ultimately, they learn to trust and look out for each other. This is especially nice for James, because he's this wonderful, quiet kid with an overbearing mother, a kid who really deserves a friend.
Here is a passage that I love, about the friendship between James and Marvin. Although it comes late in the book, it's not a spoiler to the plot:
"Marvin looked up at James, filled with a warm tide of something he'd never felt before. It was move than happiness. More than affection or gratitude. It was something deeper. It was the sense of being seen and loved exactly for who he was.
Not the way his parents loved him, which was as steady and certain as the street lamp shining outside James's window each night. This was different: the feeling of being chosen. Out of everybody in the world, Marvin realized, this boy had picked him as the one he liked best of all." (Chapter 38)
If that doesn't make you want to get this book, and read it aloud with your kids, well, I can't help you any further. I'm glad that I made such a perfect choice for my last complete read of the challenge. This is a must-read title for children and adults.
Publisher: Henry Holt and Co.
Publication Date: September 30, 2008
Source of Book: Advance review copy from the publisher
© 2009 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved.