Stealing Magic by Marianne Malone
Stealing Magic is the second book in Marianne Malone’s SIXTY-EIGHT ROOMS adventure series for middle grade readers. The series has a fascinating premise — two 6th grade kids find a way to explore the Thorne Rooms in the Art Institute of Chicago and discover that they can use the rooms to get into the world of the time period the rooms depict. But Bill, Kelly, and I were disappointed because there was too little time spent actually exploring the fantasy worlds (which would be the fun part). Bill suggested that the first book might be an introduction to the series and he hoped for more adventure in subsequent novels.
Since the publisher of the audio version of the series recently sent me a review copy of the fourth SIXTY-EIGHT ROOMS book, I decided to give the series another chance. In this second book, Stealing Magic, Ruthie and Jack visit the worlds of two of the Thorne Rooms. One is 19th century Charleston, South Carolina where they meet a black slave girl who wishes she could read. They give her a gift to help her fulfill her goal. The other is Paris in 1937 where they meet a Jewish German girl at the Paris Expo. When they later review their history and realize that this girl and her family are in danger from the Nazis, they plan to go back and warn her not to return to Germany. However, someone has stolen the key to the rooms and some items from the rooms are also missing. Ruthie and Jack must solve the mystery of the stolen key, find the stolen items, and get back to Paris to warn their new friend.
Unfortunately, Stealing Magic has the same problems that the first book has. Most of the plot takes place in the real world. There is very little time spent in Charleston and Paris and even that little bit of time simply looks like a set piece with the requisite Paris and Charleston props (e.g. Eiffel tower, cafés, Nazi flags, cruel slave owners). The lack of exploration is disappointing. The lessons that the kids learn are simple and obvious (Nazis are bad, slavery is bad) and given no shading or nuance (the only time we encounter a slave owner is when we see a white boy gleefully stomping ants — ah, this means slave owners are outrageously cruel). The tension is easily resolved (“Hey, watch out of the Nazis” “Oh! Thanks for the warning, I will!”) and the far-reaching (future) consequences of Ruthie and Jack’s interference with the two girls they meet is unbelievable (Kelly mentioned this in her review of the first book). The real-world art thief is also obvious (it’s the only new character) and easily exposed. The story would have worked better if the art thief mystery had been more challenging and Malone had concentrated on just one of the fantasy plots (either the Nazi plot OR the slavery plot). As it is, this story feels like the author dropped her manuscripts of three separate books into the river and concocted Stealing Magic out of the pages she managed to fish out.
Young children (3rd through 5th grade) may be more forgiving of the simplicity of the plot and they will learn a little bit of history in the process, but I think most of them will want to do more exploring of the rooms and the worlds beyond (which would teach them even more history). I will keep hoping for that in future installments because Malone’s premise is full of unmet potential.
The Sixty-Eight Rooms — (2010-2014) Ages 9-12. Publisher: Almost everybody who has grown up in Chicago knows about the Thorne Rooms. Housed in the Children’s Galleries of the Chicago Art Institute, they are a collection of 68 exquisitely crafted miniature rooms made in the 1930s by Mrs. James Ward Thorne. Each of the 68 rooms is designed in the style of a different historic period, and every detail is perfect, from the knobs on the doors to the candles in the candlesticks. Some might even say, the rooms are magic. Imagine — what if you discovered a key that allowed you to shrink so that you were small enough to sneak inside and explore the rooms’ secrets? What if you discovered that others had done so before you? And that someone had left something important behind? Fans of Chasing Vermeer, The Doll People, and From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler will be swept up in the magic of this exciting art adventure!
Laughing out loud at the description of the manuscripts falling into the river.
“Hey, watch out for the Nazis” was pretty much exactly how the first book’s plot got resolved too, except it was “Hey, watch out for the French Revolution.”