Let me ask you a question. You seem like an intelligent individual. Have you ever read From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler? And, if your answer is yes, did you love it? At the very least, do you remember it? I think it fair to say that for significant portions of the population the answer to both these questions would be yes. But before we go any further, consider for a moment precisely WHY you love the book. I’m going to go out on a limb here and suggest that it’s most probable that what you remember from the title was the whole kids-running-away-to-live-in-a-museum aspect. What you might have forgotten was that there was also a mystery at the heart of the book. The mystery had to do with a statue and had a solution that, let’s face it, was a bit contrived for its young audience. If you ever felt that Konigsburg could have done better in the whole solving-an-art-mystery department, allow me to lead you by the elbow over here to where I’m showing off my latest delight. Under the Egg by Laura Marx Fitzgerald marks a strong debut, daring to take the reader from contemporary New York City to WWII and back again without breaking so much as a sweat. It’s gutsy and ambitious by turns,
Things could be better. A lot better. When Theodora’s grandfather Jack was alive, the family didn’t have a ton of money but at least they got by pretty well on his salary as a guard at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It was after Jack died in a freak accident that things took a downward slide. With a mother incapable of dealing with reality (and addicted to pricey tea), Theo knows their money is coming to an end. Soon they won’t have enough to live on. It’s when things look particularly dire that Theo accidentally spills rubbing alcohol on one of her grandfather’s favorite paintings. And as strange as it sounds, beneath his plain picture of an egg lies an incredibly old image of Madonna and Child. The more Theo starts to look into the painting and its history, the more determined she is to track down its story. Now with the help of the daughter of a pair of acting celebrities, a punk librarian, an Episcopalian priest, a guy selling nuts on the street, and more, Theo’s about to peel away not just the mystery behind the painting, but also her own grandfather’s role in one of the greatest WWII capers of all time.
The crazy thing about the mystery at work here is that Fitzgerald honestly makes you believe that a pair of 12-year-olds, with a whole summer of nothing to do, could indeed successfully identify a Renaissance painting and, with a little research and intelligence, determine its origins. There’s one moment that involves an x-ray machine that strains a bit of credulity, but the strength of the other elements more than make up for it. The professional reviewer at Kirkus also had a problem with a coincidence that arrives at the end of the book like a kind of Deus Ex Machina. Personally, this didn’t disturb me in the least, mostly because Fitzgerald does a pretty dang good job of justifying why it happens. It’s a little pat, but hardly a deal breaker.
As for the writing itself, I grew very fond of it. You’d have to have a pretty hardened heart not to enjoy lines like “Mother Nature had draped a wet wool sweater around the city’s shoulders that day.” As a character, Theo’s in a pretty nasty position. As caregiver and pseudo parent to a mother who can’t break out of her own brain, the stakes are fairly high. They’ve been selling this book on the premise that it’s about a loner who finds ways to connect with the characters, oddballs, and generally good people who’ve surrounded her all this time and that she never noticed before. That’s true to a certain extent, but I always found the relationship between Theo and her grandfather Jack to be the most interesting relationship in the book. He may be dead, but his character points are loud and clear, even from beyond the grave.
This book also managed to fulfill for me personally a wish I’ve harbored for about 10 years now. In that time I’ve been a children’s librarian and I’ve seen a lot of middle grade novels set in NYC. From time to time these books will mention libraries in the city. If they mention any library in particular, it tends to be the main branch of NYPL. This is understandable, but my first library job was in a branch of NYPL that I still to this day consider the best of them all. Called the Jefferson Market Branch, I served as its children’s librarian for about two years. During that time I became obsessed with the building and yearned to see it mentioned in a book for kids. I came closest when Kiki Strike: Inside the Shadow City by Kirsten Miller was released, but was thwarted at the last minute when the author, for some ungodly and unknown reason, chose to MAKE UP a branch rather than have her characters walk over to Jefferson Market. Now, in the year 2014, I am happy to report that for the first time in my own memory, the branch has appeared in a book. And not just as a sly mention either. Under the Egg gives Jefferson Market the credit it has been long due. So if I sound a little gushy about this book, you can probably safely assume that my loyalty was, one way or another, kind of compromised along the way.
In terms of timing, Under the Egg could not be better situated. In February of this year (2014) our movie theaters will feature the film The Monuments Men with an all-star cast, based on a true bit of little known history. A bit of history that was SO little known, in fact, that I’d never seen it mentioned in a world of children’s books, whether fiction or informational. Now, practically on top of The Monuments Men, we have a title for 9-12 year olds that uses this bit of history as a pivotal plot point. Well timed, Ms. Fitzgerald!
It’s difficult to write a tense thriller of a middle grade mystery without a good antagonist. In this book, that part is played by one “Uncle” Lyndon, a man whose greatest crime is his desire to get art into museums. This is a bit of a tough sell for a reader who grew up with Indiana Jones’s cry of “It belongs in a museum!” ringing in her ears throughout her youth. To read this book in the way the author intends, you are put in the position of wondering who should own great art. The book, surprisingly enough, makes the argument that famous works of art can indeed belong to individuals and they can do whatever they want with them. If that person wants to hide the art away from the rest of the world, that is their right. And if that art is taken from that person by force and circumstance allows that the former owner can be tracked down, to procure it for a museum would be an immoral act. This is a bit of a stretch, to be sure. It is, however, excellent fodder for book discussion groups. The Under the Egg mentality versus the Indiana Jones mentality. Who should win?
When they tell you that the book is “From the Mixed-Up Files meets Chasing Vermeer” I suggest you not believe them. Yes, there is a famous piece of art and yes there is a mystery, but the mystery in this book is so much stronger than any art-related children’s book mystery I’ve read before that everything else just pales in comparison. If there’s a coincidence or two in this storyline, it has a strong justification beside it. Interesting from start to finish, even when it’s discussing the personal lives of 16th century painters, this won’t make every kid that reads it into an art fanatic, but what it may do is cause a whole bunch of them to start researching the painter Rafael on their own. Uniquely readable, entirely charming, and a pleasure from start to finish. Debuts this good are meant to be discovered.
On shelves March 18th.
Like This? Then Try:
- From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L. Konigsburg
- Wonderstruck by Brian Selznick
- When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead