Arthropods and Art Heists
October 29, 2015 § 2 Comments
In preparation for our recent trip to New York City, I wanted to select a chapter book to read to my eight year old that would inspire our itinerary. Last year, you might remember that we read two fantastic books which took us straight to The Metropolitan Museum of Art. It was amazing to watch JP anticipate what he would find in the museum, based on what he had read—and then to leave a few hours later with a skip in his step and an entirely different experience from what he had expected. This is the power of art: to transform, to surprise, to delight.
I was secretly hoping that I could convince JP to go back to The Met this fall, so I scrounged up another novel set in and around the museum. Beginning a few days before we left and concluding on the train ride home (where the woman sitting behind us remarked, as we were getting off, “Thank you for that delightful story!”), I read aloud Elise Broach’s moving and riveting Masterpiece (Ages 9-12), which features a boy, a beetle, and an art heist staged around a masterpiece on loan to The Met.
The art heist is fictional—as is the stolen drawing—but the artist at hand, German Renaissance master Albrecht Durer, is well represented in The Met’s permanent collection (to JP’s delight). Additionally, the novel is geeked out for art history lovers, packed with information about the most notorious art heists in history, as well as rich in discussion of what makes art worthy of our attention.
Does your child have to be interested in art to enjoy this novel? HECK, NO! Not only is the story about much more than art (mystery! adventure! defiance of authority!), it stars an eleven-year-old boy whose only experience with art is that his father is an artist—and who initially feels only disappointment when his father gifts him a pen-and-ink set for his birthday.
What our protagonist James does care about—what he yearns for—is connection. Connection to his divorced parents, who don’t see him for who he is, and connection to a true friend, whom he has never had. Elise Broach (who also authored the Superstition Mountain series, which I read to JP earlier this year) has a wonderful ability to showcase the inner emotional life of her young characters, by revealing how they interact with their surroundings. In this case, what we learn about this gentle, watchful, sensitive soul named James derives largely from his unexpected friendship with a cockroach.
A COCKROACH?! Well, OK, Marvin is technically a ground beetle, who lives with his family in a damp corner of the cupboard beneath the kitchen sink of James’ Manhattan apartment. But anyone who has ever lived in New York City can vouch that he might as well be a cockroach. No doubt Broach is anticipating our reaction and using this to underline how remarkable this friendship is between boy and bug.
Masterpiece deserves to be on a shelf with the best of them. Think Charlotte’s Web, or The Cricket in Times Square, but for a slightly older audience. Broach writes the relationship between child and animal with the same tenderness that E.B. White and George Selden brought to their respective classics. She envisions a “miniature” world (a world where beetles bum rides off their human’s vacuum cleaner) with much the same detail and fascination as fellow contemporary Richard Peck did in The Mouse With the Question Mark Tail.
Only Broach offers up more at stake. In Masterpiece, James’ chance for happiness, or at least self-acceptance, hinges on what happens as a result of his relationship with the animal world.
Early on in the story, Marvin (the beetle) stumbles upon the pen-and-ink set, lying abandoned on James’ desk. By dragging two feet through the little bit of ink left in the unscrewed top, he discovers that he can create a realistic rendition of the nighttime view outside James’ window. A drawing, as it turns out, with an uncanny likeness to the renowned sketches by Albrecht Durer.
When James awakens, he spots the beetle hiding beside the not-yet-dry picture. A friendship—“like a great work of art”—is quickly born, and James is determined to learn more about Marvin’s world.
But James is equally determined that no one should know Marvin’s secret but him. Herein lies the haunting ethical question posed subtly but frequently by the novel (and a big reason why this story lends itself to sharing aloud): Is James right to take credit for Marvin’s drawing, which creates an impressive stir as soon as it is discovered the next day by the adults? While James genuinely wishes to protect Marvin from his fellow humans (because he’s a cockroach)—and he knows no one would believe the truth—there’s no doubt that he benefits from the spotlight suddenly afforded to him by his father, who whisks him off to the The Met to show the drawing to his colleagues, thereby unwittingly casting both James and Marvin in a page-turning plot of art forgery, fueled by the FBI’s desire to catch a famous art thief.
At first, James’ inadvertent “lie”—that he is capable of such art—seems innocent enough; but as the story goes on, we begin to observe the devastating effect that it has, not only on James’ moral compass, but on his relationships with the adults in his life. Our heart breaks for him time and time again. “But he has no choice!” my JP kept lamenting, equally torn. Or does he? It takes the duration of the book for James to figure out how to free himself from this suffocating secret, while still remaining loyal to his six-legged friend.
Marvin may be the overt artistic hero of the book, but James is the one who inspires us to broaden our definition of heroism. Through his friendship with Marvin, James begins to discover and embrace his own, less visible gifts. He notices Marvin when no one else does—and this same power of observation also leads James to track down the art thief and rescue the stolen art. Most importantly, James’ watchful eye sees past the fronts, whether beautiful or ugly, that people and animals present to the world, the defenses we construct around us.
Marvin looked up at James, filled with a warm tide of something he’d never felt before. More than affection or gratitude. It was something deeper. It was the sense of being seen and loved exactly for who he was.
We weren’t halfway through the book when JP requested that we once again visit The Met on our weekend in New York (success!). We went straight to the Durer paintings, although JP felt that they paled in comparison with the sketches described in the book. We moved on to the twentieth century wing where, after looking around for awhile, JP asked if he could sit and sketch. “But I don’t want to draw any of these paintings. I want to do my own.”
As I watched my son change out color after color to form a bizarre geometric maze with his pencils, I started thinking about James, whose drawings would never measure up to Marvin’s. And yet, success is not always about making masterpieces, the book seems to reassure us in the end. It’s about the way that art brings people together—and the way that it inspires us to learn things about ourselves. When we liberate ourselves from the pressure to be something we aren’t, life gets a whole lot more enjoyable.
Other Favorite Chapter Books About Art Heists:
From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, by E.L. Konigsburg (Ages 9-12)
Chasing Vermeer, by Blue Balliett (Ages 9-12)
Under the Egg, by Laura Marx Fitzgerald (Ages 10-14)
AND, if you child isn’t ready for the complexity of Masterpiece—or has listened to Masterpiece but wants something easier to read on his own—Elise Broach has recently launched a spinoff early-chapter book series, targeted at emerging readers and inspired by the everyday adventures of James and Marvin. The Miniature World of Marvin and James and James to the Rescue are charming quick reads.
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