Malone's first novel is a smoothly written fantasy with an appealing premise.
The New York Times
Debut author Malone pens a fantasy tale of museum time travel that suffers from an underdeveloped cast of characters and some disappointing plotting decisions. When daring 11-year-old Jack finds a key in the hallway behind the Thorne Rooms, 68 miniature historical dioramas housed in the Art Institute of Chicago, he hands it to his best friend, Ruthie, a cautious girl who yearns for excitement. To their shock, she shrinks to five inches tall. After figuring out how to shrink Jack down, the duo hide in the hallway past closing time, try on fancy clothes and armor, battle a cockroach, and are thrilled to find that doors lead out from the rooms into the actual past. Cop-outs abound, there are no villains to speak of, and the sixth-graders generally seem too good to be true (“You mean you've never been to the Thorne Rooms?” Jack asks Ruthie early on. “I thought everyone had!”). Readers will find little excitement in either the time travelogue or the clinical descriptions of the genuinely delightful Thorne Rooms, which deserve better. Ages 8–12. (Feb.)
School Library Journal
Gr 4–6—On a field trip to the Art Institute of Chicago, sixth-graders Jack and Ruthie discover a magical key that allows them to explore the Thorne Rooms, 68 intricate model rooms in the children's galleries. When Ruthie holds the key, she and anything she is touching, including Jack, shrink to the scale of the models. As they explore the rooms, they learn that they are not the first to discover the key—the daughter of a friendly museum guard was the last to learn the secret of the Thorne Rooms, and she left behind a notebook containing priceless family photographs. If Ruthie and Jack can find and return the notebook without giving up the secret of the rooms, they can change the museum guard's life. However, the rooms are not without their dangers. Ruthie and Jack can move beyond them to the different time periods and locations of each one and, in doing so, may be able to alter the course of history. This is a solid story, though it lacks the cachet that would make it stand out from other similar books. The descriptions of the rooms are faithful to the actual rooms in the museum. The pen-and-ink illustrations are of uneven quality and add little to the story. Recommend this book to fans of Blue Balliett's Chasing Vermeer (Scholastic, 2004) and other stories that incorporate a touch of fantasy into a cozy mystery.—Misti Tidman, Boyd County Public Library, Ashland, KY
Who hasn't seen the carefully composed exhibits of miniatures at a museum, or even a simple dollhouse, and wondered what it would be like to be small enough to walk inside? First-time author Malone clearly has. Her tale revolves around the magical adventures of two everyday kids, Ruthie and Jack, among the Thorne Rooms at the Art Institute of Chicago. Sixth graders at a prestigious private school, they're best friends and complete opposites. When Jack finds a mysterious key on a class outing, a key that enables Ruthie and anything she touches to shrink, the magic begins. Along the way Jack and Ruthie make friends with some children from the past and discover that others have used the key before them. The author works hard providing background details for adult and child characters alike, but she can't quite manage to breathe life into any of them. As a result, her story seems overlong and contains entirely too many convenient coincidences. That said, her effort may find an enthusiastic audience, for the premise is engaging and the plotting easy to follow. Predictable but pleasant. (Magical adventure. 8-12)
The Art Institute of Chicago houses a collection of 68 miniature rooms; this collection is called the Thorne Rooms. Each room represents a different place and time; every detail is perfect, almost eerily so. There's something magical about the exquisite detail in each room, and Ruthie, a sixth grader on a class field trip to the Art Institute, is fascinated. Ruthie and her best friend, Jack, discover a key that allows them to shrink small enough to explore the rooms, but as they do, they come to realize that they are not the firsta previous explorer left something important behind, and Jack and Ruthie try to find a way to return it. This is a lively adventure that weaves together the excitement of being small, a magical setting, and history. Reviewer: Melanie Hundley
Children's Literature - Elizabeth D. Schafer
Sixth graders Ruthie Stewart and her best friend Jack Tucker are fascinated by the Thorne Rooms, dioramas featuring domestic settings from various historical eras, in the Art Institute of Chicago. In a corridor behind the miniature rooms, Jack discovers a key engraved with the initials CM. When Ruthie touches the key, she shrinks, standing only several inches high. Excited by her transformation, Ruthie quickly explores the room with an elegant canopy bed she admires. The friends scheme to roam through the rooms together when the institute is closed. They see warriors and shooting arrows outside a castle room and concoct stories about their identities when they meet Sophie Lacombe and her tutor Monsieur Lesueur in pre-Revolutionary France and befriend Thomas Wilcox and his family in 1692 Massachusetts, escaping from a crowd frenzied by witchcraft hysteria. Ruthie and Jack find Christina of Milan's journal and other objects, which resolve some issues and present new mysteries. The pair's knowledge of historical events intensifies their concern for their new acquaintances who might suffer harm in impending crises. Their interactions alter those people's lives but do not significantly impact history. Miniature Rooms: The Thorne Rooms at the Art Institute of Chicago (2004) edited by Elizabeth Stepina, contains photographs of rooms this novel features. One might also pair it with Eve Bunting's The Lambkins (2005). Reviewer: Elizabeth D. Schafer
Read an Excerpt
Getting up in the morning was always a challenge for Ruthie. It wasn’t waking up that was difficult—it was getting out of bed. She had to scrunch down to the end of her bed and climb out through the narrow opening between her desk and her sister’s dresser. Then she had to be careful where she placed her feet on the floor because the under-the-bed storage bin for her summer clothes didn’t quite fit under her twin bed. It stuck out just enough to trip her or stub a toe. The other difficult part was to avoid waking up her sister so Ruthie could claim the bathroom first. Claire was older and seemed to need much more time in the bathroom before school—or before going anywhere—than Ruthie did. Ruthie didn’t understand why that was but it was an observation she had made many, many times.
Claire was nice enough—not horrible like some siblings Ruthie had heard of. But she took up so much time and space. Mostly space. In their little room, Claire’s stuff dominated by far. She had a computer and a big printer on her already larger desk, all her sports equipment, lots of clothes piled everywhere and a growing mountain of college brochures, SAT study guides and application information. Claire was a junior in high school and starting the process of applying to college. Ruthie counted the days till her sister went away to school. Then she would have her own room.
This morning Ruthie woke up first and made her way through the small path in their bedroom to the doorway without waking Claire. She looked down the hall—great luck! The bathroom was empty and all hers. Among the kids at her school she was the only one whose family shared one bathroom.
Ruthie turned on the shower first to let the water warm up, took her one bottle of shampoo off the wire rack and tried to find a space for it on the shower ledge next to Claire’s and their mom’s gazillion hair care products. It wasn’t easy.
As the warm water ran over her back she stood there for a moment, mulling the fact that the shower was just about the only place in her apartment where she could be alone and think privately. She envisioned the day ahead of her, the field trip and what the chances were of something cool happening today. Why not today? After a really exciting or unusual thing happens, do people look back and say, “I thought something would happen today”? Probably not. But why not? Ruthie wondered. Don’t people ever have a feeling,a sign that something great will happen? Her time alone was interrupted when the door to the bathroom opened, not once but three times.
From behind the map-of-the-world shower curtain she heard her dad say, “Sorry, Ruthie, I’m just looking for a book I thought I left in here last night.”
“Dad, please!” Ruthie said.
“Don’t worry, I can’t see anything! Now, where did I put it?” He closed the door. Sheesh!
A minute later it was her mom. “Ruthie, have you seen your father’s book on American history?”
“Mom, do you mind? No, I haven’t. He already asked me.”
“Well, don’t take too long in the shower. Your sister needs to get going.”
Right on cue, Claire came in and started brushing her teeth.
“Claire, can’t I have any privacy?”
“Oh, Ruthie. Don’t be a prude. Hurry up, okay?”
Six hundred and thirty-five days till she goes to college, Ruthie groaned to herself. An eternity!
From the Hardcover edition.