The Sixty-Eight Rooms, by Marianne Malone (Random House, 2010, middle grade, 265 pages)
Ruthie had never been to see the Thorne Rooms before the field trip that took her class to the Art Institute of Chicago. They entrance her--sixty-eight tiny rooms filled with the most exquisitely detailed miniatures imaginable, depicting settings from a medieval castle to a Puritan home in New England. Her best friend Jack is not quite so interested, until the discovery of a tiny key in the service passageway behind the exhibit (where the two children were not, technically, allowed to be). Because when Ruthie holds the key, she shrinks to the scale of the miniatures, and sixty-eight rooms of enchantment await...
When she is holding onto both Jack and the key, Jack shrinks too. Together they explore the rooms, while coping with the difficulties small size entails--giant cockroaches, perilous exhibit ascents, and the like. But the true magic lies within the Rooms themselves, which are not just static boxes. Each one actually opens up into its time period, and so Ruthie and Jack find themselves in France just before the Revolution, and visit Massachusetts just as the witch trial are gaining steam. To add to that magic, it seems like they are not the first children to have found the secret of the Thorne Rooms--there are clues that another girl has been there, and they lead to the unravelling of a modern mystery.
The premise of this book is utterly delightful. I was entranced by the miniature rooms, and envious of Jack and Ruthie as they explored them. Malone doesn't skimp on her description of the miniatures, and I was grateful to her for this--she did an excellent job bringing them to life. Their expeditions to the museum--fraught with logistical challenges--were magical journeys reminiscent, almost, of Edward Eager's stories of magic meeting everyday life (although Malone doesn't quite match the snappiness of Eager's characterization. But then, who does?).
The time-travel element promised, I thought, a bit more than it delivered. Although I very much enjoyed the two ventures into the past, they didn't tie into any larger Plot, and so lacked a certain emotional umph. The actual elements of the plot that needed resolution were both in the present, and one of these had nothing to do with the Thorne Rooms at all. I am hoping that in future books (and room is, happily, left open for these) that the magical ability of the rooms to open into the past will be explored more fully.
I myself hope there are more books to come, because I do so love these rooms, with all these beautiful things, and I want to see more of them!
Time Travel Wise: The experiences of Jack and Ruthie in the past are very interesting vignettes, but are of brief duration, and didn't strike me as being essential to the plot or to the characters' development. But I am hopeful that in future books, we might get more time in the past--the premise is so beautifully laid out for many future adventures....
Other reviews at Book Aunt, Fantasy Literature, and Read Now, Sleep Later.
And here's one of the Thorne Rooms:
More pictures here. Longing sigh on my part. I never particularly wanted to go to Chicago before now...