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Mystery in Miniature: "The Sixty-Eight Rooms" by Marianne Malone

With holiday decorations festooning the Thorne Miniature Rooms, now is a great time to get re-enchanted with this part of the Art Institute collection by reading the new book The Sixty-Eight Rooms by Chicago author Marianne Malone.

Mrs. James Ward Thorne of Chicago created the rooms in the 1930s to represent interiors from different time periods and they have long been a favorite with museum visitors. While I can’t say that The Sixty-Eight Rooms is the best piece of young adult fiction I’ve ever read (and many online reviewers of the book agree) the basic concept is unique and exciting. Despite some awkward dialogue and long descriptive sections, I found myself quickly drawn into the world of Jack and Ruthie, sixth graders at an unnamed Chicago private school who visit the Thorne Rooms on a school fieldtrip. While in the museum they find a magic gold key that allows them to shrink down to a height of five inches and enter the miniature rooms. (The scale of the Thorne rooms is one inch to one foot). But the real adventure begins when they realize they can walk outside the rooms and into different times and places, including Paris just before the French Revolution and colonial Salem, Massachusetts. The kids become so familiar with the rooms that they begin to refer to them by their catalogue numbers (just like museum employees), and Ruthie’s favorite is E17, a sixteenth-century French bedroom (pictured above) because she wants to sleep in the beautiful green silk canopied bed. The story progresses without any major conflicts, and nothing bad happens to the main characters despite the fact that they lie to their parents, steal a key from a security guard, spend the night in the museum, and go back in time and change history. I wish that more of the rooms were explored; Malone barely mentions any of the Asian and modern rooms. Time for a sequel, perhaps? Nonetheless, following Ruthie and Jack on their journey through the Thorne rooms is still exciting and members of the 8-10 year old set will be delighted with this book.

Many readers may not realize that it is possible to view enlarged images of all of the rooms in the Art Institute’s online collection here, which totally enhances the experience of reading the story. After finishing The Sixty-Eight Rooms I was excited to go back and take another look at rooms that I have passed by many times in order to find the objects and details mentioned in the book. This is definitely recommended reading for all Thorne Miniature Room devotees!

Mrs. James Ward Thorne. E17: French Bedroom, Late 16th Century, c. 1937. Gift of Mrs. James Ward Thorne.