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MASTERPIECE by Elise Broach

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Boys and their dogs we know about, but a boy and his beetle best friend? Marvin the beetle doesn't even get to talk to James the boy, yet they understand each other instinctively.

In perhaps a tribute to The Mouse Named Wolf, Masterpiece describes how an animal living in a human household helps out the humans. Like Dick King Smith's book, Masterpiece explores the power of art and friendship, but it goes bigger to include an international art heist and a child's sense of security and confidence.

Yes, a book about bugs will have your standard bug jokes, so let's get them out of the way:

    * Sleep tight, don't let the bed bugs bite (yes)
    * Oh what a tangled web we weave (yes, but qualified as a spider joke.)

The overall tone of the book is light-hearted, except for the moments describing James's thoughts and feelings about his mother, a irritable woman whose shrewdness in business opportunities overshadows her affection for her son. In a reassuring gesture, (for which I am glad, since some early middle graders still feel strong ties to their mothers and may not want to think of them as nasty human beings) the author restores some of her humanity at the end.

Marvin is an adventurous, self-aware bug who lives with a loving family with strong values. His easy life of foraging after meal times (especially under the baby's high chair), swimming in a bottle cap, and hitching rides on the vacuum cleaner for picnics in the solarium is interrupted by the sudden discovery of his gift of drawing. Before he knows it, he's learning about Durer the artist, involved in an elaborate scheme to find art thieves, and deciding how much risk he should take. His solo adventure of accompanying the stolen art work takes him to empty hotel lobbies, phone calls to people with foreign-sounding names, and a burglary.

IN the midst of the adventures, readers have to deal, as Marvin as to, with questions of justice and courage and forgiveness, and what it means to do right by the people who matter.

Because of its art subject matter, Masterpiece will likely be compared to another MG mystery, Chasing Vermeer. One reviewer calls Masterpiece more evidence-driven, and I agree, because that was my main beef with Vermeer. I enjoyed the writing in Vermeer but have my heart touched a little more in Masterpiece. The friendship between Marvin and James will be one I'll remember for a long time.

Boy and dog: so yesterday.
#1 - January 22, 2009, 10:55 AM


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