Saturday, November 22, 2014

Masterpiece by Elise Broach, 2008

Synopsis (from Goodreads):
Marvin lives with his family under the kitchen sink in the Pompadays’ apartment. He is very much a beetle. James Pompaday lives with his family in New York City. He is very much an eleven-year-old boy.After James gets a pen-and-ink set for his birthday, Marvin surprises him by creating an elaborate miniature drawing. James gets all the credit for the picture and before these unlikely friends know it they are caught up in a staged art heist at the Metropolitan Museum of Art that could help recover a famous drawing by Albrecht Dürer. But James can’t go through with the plan without Marvin’s help. And that’s where things get really complicated (and interesting!). This fast-paced mystery will have young readers on the edge of their seats as they root for boy and beetle.

First, an important note to my readers: Two months ago I fell off a horse (during my third and final horse-back riding lesson), spraining my left and dominant hand. We went to the doctor and got a wrist brace which helped it get better, but in the last two weeks it has become painful once more and so I'm under orders not to use it for anything. Sadly, that "anything" includes typing. I'm left to do my school-work and blog writing either one-handed or with my computer's pretty faulty dictation device. So if I miss a typo here or there, just let me know in the comments and I'll fix it.

Anyway, on to the review.
I read this book for the first time several years ago, back when I was actually part of the target audience.  The first time I read it, I picked it up because I had loved Shakespeare's Secret by the same author.  I didn't really know what to expect with this one, but once I got into this book, I was enthralled.  Now, a few years later, I am not quite as in love as I was the first time (and caught a couple logistical issues that escaped my notice the first time), but it is still the fun, sweet story I remember - and even cuter than I thought it was!

I'm not really going to nit-pick through this one. The fact that the beetles are so similar to humans requires a leap of faith (I mean, Marvin has an uncle who fixes the electronic devices when they malfunction!), but the charming picture of a tiny family living in the walls and mimicking the lives of the larger inhabitants is indubitably an appealing one to elementary and middle school-aged children. You only have to look at the success of The Littles and The Borrowers to see this. Stuart Little and The Cricket in Time's Square are some  more successful additions to this sub-genre about tiny people or animals who behave like people. Masterpiece joins the ranks of these stretch-of-the-imagination classics with all the charm that can be desired, if not all the logic (at one point Marvin can't see and knows he's in an  elevator because of the swooping feeling in his stomach - how can this pubescent beetle who has never left home before possibly know what it feels like to be in an elevator?).
The story is told third person past tense from Marvin's point of view. Marvin is the hero of this book, no doubt about it. It's his decisions that carry the story, starting with his impulsive present to James. Marvin doesn't really have much unique characterization. The novelty is in what Marvin is and what he can do, not who Marvin is. Marvin is pretty straight-forward (kind, curious, artistic, etc), and you can't help but automatically be on his side.

James, the main human character in the book, is just as nice as Marvin, and is also very perceptive. James is probably my favorite character in the book not only because of his shy kindness, but because his mother and step-father walk all over him and you can't help but be on his side. Even James's real father Karl (divorced from James's mother several years before the book begins) seems oblivious to James's real desires in life: he gives James a pen and ink set for his birthday, clueless to the fact that James can't even draw. James doesn't throw a fit about getting a pen and ink set for his birthday (which is what most bratty kids in today's MG would do). He thanks his dad with as much enthusiasm as he can muster, and goes upstairs to start testing the kit out. See why I like this kid? There have been too many self-absorbed MCs lately, and I enjoyed reading a book with two kind and even compassionate main characters. Maybe I should read younger kid books more often.

As for the plot, it's a fun adventure through art, history, and museum security with a clever twist ending. As I mentioned above, James's parents are divorced. It's handled neatly throughout the book, and younger readers will quickly catch on to the fact that James's parents just weren't compatible because of their completely different approaches to life. While I may not agree with the idea of "incompatibility" divorce, there's no fault in the way it's handled.

Now, I keep saying this is a book for younger kids. This is true, but keep in mind: it's 292 pages long. It packs quite a heft for a middle grade book, so be careful that you only give it to kids who've got some endurance training under their belt. Also, older people are not excluded from reading it. I'm a high school junior and I read it, and I'm even admitting to reading it online!

Disclaimer: I received a copy of this book for free through Barnes & Noble's summer reading program this past summer. No one asked me to review it, and it didn't affect my review in any way.

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