Goodreads: Under the Egg
Published: March 2014
Thirteen-year-old Theodora Tenpenny remembers her grandfather’s last moments very clearly–he instructed her to look “under the egg” and to find a treasure. But though Theo desperately needs money to feed herself and her mother, and to save their family’s ancestral home, following the instructions doesn’t seem to be helping. Until the day she accidentally uncovers an artistic masterpiece in her grandfather’s studio. Unfortunately, her grandfather was not only an artist but also a security guard at an art museum. Is the painting the answer to Theo’s financial troubles or is it the beginning of an entirely different set of problems?
Under the Egg is full of great messages and, as an older reader, that is mostly what I saw. Yes, I appreciate the sympathetic protagonist, the mystery mixed in with the plot, and the wonderful female friendship. Throughout, however, I kept thinking about the elements the author included and, rather than enjoying them in the story, reflected on how they are probably meant to teach kids things. Lots of good things. Probably kids will not notice them very much and will really like this story. But, maybe, just maybe I am a bit too old to appreciate Under the Egg in all its middle-grade glory.
That is not to say that I did not enjoy Under the Egg myself. In fact, the more I think about it, the more I like it. Our protagonist Theo really carries the story, not only through her unique narrative voice but also through all the things she leaves unsaid. For example, her family is poor. So poor that she has to scour the streets for the necessities of life and the she has to refashion her grandmother’s old negligees into sundresses, towels into bathing suit cover-ups, and more. Yet she never reflects on how embarrassing this must be to a thirteen-year-old, especially at school, but instead describes her life matter-of-factly and celebrates her ingenuity in clothing herself. She does not have many friends, it is true, and readers get an inkling that the other kids probably find her a bit weird, but Theo seems to think it’s because she’s introverted and studious, not because of how she looks. Such understated confidence from a female character is rare and refreshing.
Laura Marx Fitzgerald adds to this “girl power” by introducing a female friend for Theo, Bodhi, the free-spirited daughter of two celebrities. The two seem an unlikely pair–one quiet and cautious, the other outgoing and without much discretion. Still, the two make their friendship work, combining their strengths to solve the mystery of Theo’s painting. And never does money become an issue in their relationship. The two accept each other as they are without question, never exhibiting jealousy or contempt. What a find to have two females work together rather than compete!
Aside from the lessons about acceptance, Fitzgerald throws in a good deal about Renaissance art, art and chemistry, World War II and the Holocaust, and more. (Seriously, have you ever seen a middle-grade book mention infrared imaging, x-ray imaging, pigment analysis, and polymerization?) The book is essentially a little treasure hunt through art and history, bringing readers through New York’s museums, libraries and archives to uncover the origins of Theo’s painting. It was fun, but does seem perhaps a little heavy-handed from an older perspective. Apparently the book really, really wants young readers to get into history and art.
Under the Egg is a pleasant story for older readers, but I suspect that it is the younger readers who will really fall in love with this story. The mystery of the painting as well as the intelligence and spunk of the two female leads will be sure to captivate, while ideas about providing education in entertainment will probably escape notice. Still, even I am looking forward to Fitzgerald’s next book.