Through the Looking Glass Children's Book Reviews

The Sixty-Eight Rooms

The Sixty-Eight Rooms

Marianne Malone
Illustrator:  Greg Call 
For ages 9 to 12
Random House Books for Young Readers, 2010   ISBN: 978-0375857102

Ruthie’s life is very ordinary, and sometimes she wishes something “cool” would happen to her. Her best friend Jack is the kind of boy who has adventures; he has the kind of personality that can make “interesting and unusual things happen.” One would think that these two very different kids would have nothing in common, but Ruthie’s cautious and careful ways compliment Jack’s more unconventional thoughts, ideas, and actions.

When Ruthie’s class goes to the Chicago Art Institute for a school trip on a cold winter’s day, she and her classmates look at some of the African art, and then, after lunch, they go to visit the Thorne Rooms. The Thorne Rooms are sixty-eight little rooms faced with glass that contain miniature house interiors. Ruthie looks into rooms from medieval castles, French chateaus, and American colonial homes. Every piece of furniture and every object in the rooms is perfectly to scale and beautifully made, and Ruthie immediately develops a fascination for the rooms.

Jack’s mother, who is an artist and who is helping to chaperone the group, introduces Jack and Ruthie to Mr. Bell, who works at the museum. He lets the two kids look into an access corridor that runs behind the rooms. While Jack is looking around, he finds a little ornate key on the floor and he picks it up and puts it into his pocket. Of course, being curious kids, Jack and Ruthie want to know what the key is for.

The next day, the kids go back to the Art Institute on their own and they are able to sneak into the access corridor behind the little rooms because the door was not closed properly. As they explore the corridor, Jack gives Ruthie the key to hold and then the strangest thing happens. Ruthie starts to shrink. The children discover that the key only shrinks Ruthie, and that when she lets go of the key, the shrinking stops and reverses. Ruthie shrinks herself and has Jack lift her up so that she can enter one of the rooms, and she is thrilled to be able to do this. The rooms are so perfect and Ruthie even finds a tiny violin, which she plays.

Now that they have discovered the secret of the little key, Ruthie and Jack cannot help wanting to find out more about the magic and the Thorne Rooms. They copy Mr. Bell’s key to the access corridor, and then put together a plan so that they can spend a night in the museum and explore the rooms. Ruthie tells her family that she is going to have a sleepover at Jack’s house, and Jack tells his mother that he will be at Ruthie’s house. The children are able to get into the corridor without being seen, and there they hide there until the museum closes for the day. Ruthie holds the key, shrinks, and starts to explore room E24, which is a French room from 1780. Ruthie is sitting at a desk when she feels a breeze blowing on her, and hears the sound of birds singing. When she steps out onto the balcony, she finds out that the painted backdrop that visitors can see through the doors and windows is now real. She is looking at a real private garden and there are real birds singing and real clouds in the sky.

Ruthie dashes to tell Jack about her extraordinary discovery, and then Jack makes a suggestion. When Ruthie shrinks, her clothes shrink with her. What would happen if she holds Jack’s hand and then shrinks herself? The children try this ,and to Jack’s delight, he shrinks along with Ruthie. Now they can both explore the Thorne Rooms and try to find out their secrets. The children never suspect that what they are going to find out will change their lives forever.

After visiting the real Thorne Rooms in the Chicago Institute of Art many times, the author was inspired to create this story, which takes readers on a fascinating and exciting journey. The story will appeal to readers of all kinds because there is magic, history, a mystery or two, and time travel. And, of course, there are the descriptions of the gorgeous miniatures; perfect little replicas that tell a story about a time long ago.