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Book Review: Under the Egg by Laura Marx Fitzgerald

Many families have their own unique quirky traditions. In my grandparents house, it was a glass chicken candy dish. Every time we visited we would throw down our bags and run to get a piece of candy from the chicken. When my grandparents passed away, my aunt went on a quest and made sure that each of us had a glass chicken candy jar. And when mine broke, my husband went once again in search of a replacement. Many houses have one, that bizarre family heirloom or custom that makes no sense to an outsider.  For Theodora, that item is a painting of an egg where each morning they place one egg of honor in a dish below. It is their family tradition.

When her grandfather dies, the last thing he said to Theodora was “under the egg”. But she isn’t really sure what he means. Then she accidentally spills a bottle of rubbing alcohol on the painting and learns that another painting is underneath. Soon her quest begins: what is this painting, who painted it, and – most importantly – is it worth any money? Because since her grandfather died, money is a huge issue.

Soon Theodora is traipsing all around New York City in an effort to solve the mystery, and along the way she makes some new friends and learns some family secrets.

Under the Egg is a testament to art, family, traditions and friendship. It also pulls in a lot of very cool art and history. In fact, the story of the Monuments Men (soon to be a major motion picture) plays an important part and it was so fascinating to learn about this historical element that was new to me.

I really liked Theodora, she was smart, resourceful, and allowed herself to be open to new situations and information during difficult times. She is struggling with grief, with a mother who suffers from some type of mental illness, and with extreme poverty. She has not had many friends in life and it is so nice to see her making one and the way these two girls enrich each other’s lives.

Although there is a lot of sad in Theodora’s life, this was a hopeful book. The wrap up relied on a couple of huge coincidences (one that I had a hard time with), but it didn’t change my enjoyment of Theodora’s story. The art and history elements were weaved in a very organic way that didn’t bog down the story or halt the narrative; it flowed quite easily.

Although the need for it broke my heart, I loved seeing Theodora’s resiliency in the way she managed to find creative solutions to her families growing and very desperate need. Each time Theo takes a cab or makes a purchase in her quest, we get an update of her slowly dwindling monetary supply (which I believe begins around $350.00). We see her desperation, her pride, and her fear in such very real and tangible ways. And yet we also see how people around her offer to help out in little ways.

I particularly loved a scene where a librarian waives her fines so that she is no longer blocked because of a book she lost on the day that her grandfather died. It is a stark reminder to us all that a little compassion can go a long way in changing a child’s life.

I genuinely enjoyed reading this book for the mystery and the characters. And as you know, I have a heart for the very real world lives that many of our kids and teens are living in poverty and feel that this peak into that life is so essential to build compassion and so that these kids, too, can see themselves in stories that they can relate to because not all of our kids are going to rich boarding schools and not all of our poorer inner city kids are headed for a life of crime; mostly, they are just trying to find creative ways to survive and even thrive. Theodora is an important reminder to us all that kids find themselves in difficult situations every day because of things like loss and family mental illness. But don’t let this paragraph fool you, this really is a fun, inspiring and hopeful book.

The blurb reads “From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler meets Chasing Vermeer in this clever middle grade debut” and it definitely brings both of these books to mind. It also brings to mind the mystery fun of Kate Messner which also draws in history elements ala the National Treasure movies (the first book is Capture the Flag). Highly recommended.

Published March 18th from Dial. ISBN: 9780803740013

The publisher sent me a finished copy of the book in exchange for an honest review so I’m going to give it away. Simply leave a comment and either an email address or a Twitter handle (so I can contact you if you win) by Friday, March 28th at Midnight. I’ll do an old fashion name in a hat giveaway and send the book out to the winner. Add it to your collections or give it to a Middle Grade reader that you love because it is a good book.