The Sixty-eight Rooms by Marianne Malone
The Sixty-Eight Rooms has a really fun premise. Sixth-graders Ruthie and Jack visit the Thorne Miniature Rooms at the Art Institute of Chicago, and discover a magic key that enables them to shrink to doll-size and explore the rooms up close. It turns out that each room opens onto a real landscape from the time it portrays, complete with real people that Ruthie and Jack can interact with. I thought this was a great concept, and I remember thinking that Marianne Malone should set a sequel in the Fairy Castle at the Museum of Science and Industry.
Well, as it turns out, Malone has plenty of room for sequels without ever leaving the Thorne Rooms, by virtue of the fact that Ruthie and Jack barely explore the rooms in this novel. I concur with Bill, above, that Malone could have done much more with the setting. They do venture into several of the rooms, but much of the page time is devoted instead to logistics (such as how to climb from the floor to the rooms while shrunk) and to subplots (such as Jack’s mother’s financial crisis).
I also found the prose a little stilted, especially the dialogue. Part of the problem is that Malone’s characters constantly use each other’s first names as they talk. Another issue is that while many authors skim over the “small talk” portion of conversations, Malone does not. So, the story sometimes bogs down as characters go through the rituals of greeting or thanking each other. I’m not sure if this is an editing quirk or if it’s meant to model etiquette for young readers, but the effect is that Ruthie and Jack come off like idealized kids from a fifties educational film rather than like real kids. This is not to say, of course, that kids shouldn’t have good manners, just that what works in real speech isn’t necessarily effective in written dialogue. It wouldn’t work if they constantly said “um,” “uh,” or “like,” either.
The final complaint I have is possibly my own fault. I don’t read much middle-grade literature. I read a lot of YA, but the style and themes are very different between the two genres. So, I may be off base when I complain that some of the problems the characters face are resolved much too easily. For example, I had trouble believing that the friends’ meeting with Sophie, an aristocratic girl in 18th century France, changed Sophie’s life so profoundly. As I write this, I’m still reeling from Lauren Oliver’s Before I Fall, which also features a protagonist who goes backward in time and tries to change lives. It was extremely difficult for her. Even when she had a clear goal, she didn’t always know the right way to achieve it. Meanwhile, Ruthie and Jack wander into the 1700s, tell Sophie there’s going to be a revolution, and voila! She instantly believes them, and acts accordingly. But as I said, this may be a mismatch between the book and me. I’m accustomed to books for older readers, and I don’t remember for certain whether the books of my childhood had more complex plots than this. It’s likely that some did and some did not.
The Sixty-Eight Rooms was disappointing to me, but I still give Marianne Malone a lot of credit for the cute concept, and also for introducing me to the Thorne Rooms. I had not heard of them before reading this novel, and will definitely have a look next time I’m in Chicago.
Marianne Malone’s The Sixty-Eight Rooms is a children’s fantasy novel with a great premise. The problem is, she seems to have forgotten to put the fantasy in.
The Sixty-Eight Rooms imagines two sixth-graders, Ruthie and Jack, who discover a magical key on a field trip to the Thorne Rooms in the Art Institute of Chicago, a famous collection of sixty-eight miniature rooms furnished in the styles of various time periods. The key shrinks Ruthie and Jack down so that they can enter the rooms and explore. Even better, it turns out that beyond each room is the entire world of the room’s setting: France just a few years before the French Revolution, Massachusetts during the Salem Witch Trials, etc. The book moves back and forth between Ruthie and Jack’s adventures in these worlds, their attempts to sneak into the Art Institute in order to enter the rooms, and their quest in the real world to find out the mysteries behind the Thorne Rooms: who created them and how, where the key came from, how some objects from the Thorne Rooms appear to have entered the real world, and so on. Meanwhile, Jack’s mother has some real-world issues of her own to deal with as she’s having a hard time selling her artwork, and she and Jack are in danger of being evicted.
The premise is simply wonderful, combining time travel and Borrowers-type “small-person” adventuring. The problem is, we see almost no adventuring in the worlds outside the Thorne Rooms. We only pop into two of the sixty-eight, and for a matter of only a few pages. In total, the Thorne Room adventures add up to only about ten percent of the book. There is a lot of time spent getting the key and getting into the Museum, figuring out the logistics of shrinking and moving among the rooms, and tracking down the room’s mysteries, all of which have their place but offer far less of a sense of wonder and adventure than travels in a strange time and place do.
While the plot moves along smoothly enough, and the characters are well-drawn and likable, in the end The Sixty-Eight Rooms book severely disappointed by setting up the promise of exciting adventures but not following through. Malone leaves room for more at the end, so it’s possible that this novel was just a set-up for further adventures. If so, she would have been better served by whetting our appetites more fully with the possibilities. I don’t recommend The Sixty-Eight Rooms as a stand-alone. I’ll give her the benefit of the doubt and hope she returns to the Thorne Rooms with another book more fully set there.
I have to agree completely with Kelly and Bill. This is a wonderfully promising premise, but poor execution. Malone could have done so much more with it.
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!
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