Monday, April 28, 2014

Under the Egg

Under the Egg
Laura Marx Fitzgerald

Dial, 2014 243 pgs  
Grades 4-7


13 years-old Theodora (Theo) lives in Greenwich Village in New York City.  Her artist grandfather has recently died leaving Theo with a mentally ill mother and no money to support the family.  Before dying, Grandfather told her to "Look under the egg...for a letter and a treasure".  This cryptic message leads Theo to her grandpa's studio, where his beloved picture of an egg rests over the mantle.  A search through the studio leads nowhere, but after dabbing the egg painting with rubbing alcohol, Theo discovers a hidden painting beneath.  Could it be a lost masterpiece from Italian Renaissance artist Raphael?  Did Theo's grandpa actually steal the paining?   Theo makes a new (and her only) friend, Bodhi, daughter of famous movie stars, and the two girls try to solve the mystery behind the painting.  Their search takes them to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where Theo is reunited with a friend of her grandfather's with questionable motivations.  Through the help of their local librarian (Yay!) the girls discover the history both of Raphael and Grandfather, eventually leading them through a journey through the Holocaust and Nazi Germany and, eventually, finding the true owner of the painting.

I loved this book!  I love all books that involve New York City and art history.  Throw in a cool librarian, my favorite museum, and a mystery and I'm in heaven!  My all-time favorite book is From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler and this book reminds me of an updated version: kids on their own, in the Met, obsessed with solving the mystery behind a work of art.  Although that's where the similarity ends for Fitzgerald offers her own unique story.  The author deals with the problem of troublesome parents by making Theo's mother mentally ill and Bodhi's parents busy movie stars, conveniently giving the girls freedom to run around the city.  It is impossible to read this book without wanting to know more about Raphael and explore some of his paintings.  Other art heists and real-life art mysteries are touched upon, encouraging the reader to learn more.  But don't be fooled: this is not just a book art history.  Fitzgerald manages to seamlessly educate the reader about the chemistry behind paints, as well as the Monuments Men, the little know American Army corp designed to rescue and return all the famous works of art stolen by the Nazis.  The treatment of American prisoners of war during WWII, as well as Nazi death camps also come to play in the solving of the mystery.  After a few twists and turns, and an almost too convenient coincidence, the mystery is solved, leaving a little left to the reader's imagination.  This is a book that the reader walks away knowing something new and seeing the world a little differently, all while being thoroughly entertained.  Theo and Bodhi are characters that you feel like you know by the end of the book and their friendship is both realistic and heartwarming.  Life still isn't perfect for Theo, but by the end of the book she is in much better place, both richer in money and community support.  Under the Egg will be enjoyed by both girls and boys and would appeal to a range of ages.  I already plan on using it with my fifth and sixth grade book group in the fall.  The egg serves as a metaphor for new beginnings and Fitzgerald leaves us with a sense of hope and a bright new day.  So far, my vote for the 2015 Newbery...

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