Under the Egg by Laura Marx Fitzgerald is a new book for middle readers that’s both history and mystery, with a touch of erudition.
Theodora “Theo” Tenpenny is a resourceful 13 year old who lives with her mother in an old Greenwich Village town house. Her grandfather, Jack, lived with the family before his death a month prior. In fact, it was his town house. When Jack realized that his daughter—who worked on never-solved math theorems all day in her bathrobe—was “special” and would never be able to care for her family, he began to teach Theo how to survive in the world. Her education included gardening, canning and raising chickens; fixing items as they broke around the town house; reading to further whatever education she already received at school; and art. Everything art. Jack was a painter, but he also worked security at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Theo would spend countless hours with Jack at work, but they also visited other museums together: the Guggenheim, the Whitney, the Frick, and MOMA.
Theo was with Jack when he died, hit by a car in the middle of the street. Jack urgently tried to pass along a message to her, but it was very cryptic. Something about a letter, and a treasure, and “look under the egg.” Theo begins a desperate hunt for the treasure, because Jack was the only member of the family gainfully employed, and the only money left behind is $463 in a jar. The words “under the egg” lead Theo to spend many hours in Jack’s art studio, looking at (and behind and under and beneath) a painting of an egg. When she accidentally spills alcohol on the painting, layers of paint melt away to reveal a very old “Madonna and Child” painting.
Around this time, Theo meets a new neighbor her age, Bodhi, who is the daughter of two famous actors. The two girls begin an adventure and try to establish the painting’s origin, authenticity, and provenance. Laura Marx Fitzgerald does not shy away from challenging young readers; Under the Egg becomes a lesson in art history, delving into iconography, the Italian Renaissance and dating techniques in a way that’s enticing instead of daunting. For example, she doesn’t mention sacre bleu or lapis lazuli, but she does say, through Theo, “… the Virgin Mary is always wearing blue, because it was the most expensive color in the artist’s paint box. They made that paint out of crushed jewels.”
In addition to art history, world history plays a role, not only the Renaissance period but also World War II, specifically prison camps and the Monuments Men.
Under the Egg has been compared to From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler and Chasing Vermeer. It’s smart, challenging, educational, and downright fun.