Masterpiece

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by Elise Broach. Illustrated by Kelly Murphy. Novel. 304 pages. Grades 3-6.
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Review

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Marvin and his family are shiny black beetles who live in the cupboard under the kitchen sink in eleven year old James' house in New York City. The beetle family is loving, attentive and sometimes overprotective. James is lonely living with his mom and step-dad who are more attentive to his new baby brother. No one seems to have any time for him. His eleventh birthday is such a pitiful affair that Marvin--ever exuberant and kind-hearted--breaks his family's rules about staying undetected and makes a drawing for James by dipping his front legs into the ink James got from his artistic father.

When James' mother sees the impossibly intricate drawing and assumes James made it the boy and beetle begin an adventure together. The drawing has an uncanny resemblance to the drawings of Albrecht Dürer. James' father takes him, with Marvin secretly tucked in his pocket, to the Metropolitan Museum of Art to see the Dürer exhibit. There they become involved in a scheme to foil some art thieves and protect one of Dürer's drawings. Along the way the boy and the silent beetle find some creative ways to communicate while forming a true friendship.

This book shows the influence of classics like The Borrowers by Mary Norton with the vivid details of Marvin's miniature life such as playing horse shoes with staples and toothpicks and Charlotte's Web by E. B. White with the tenderness of its cross-species friendship as well as The Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E. L. Konigsburg with its Metropolitan Museum of Art setting.

This is a very engaging mystery fantasy with memorable and lovable characters.

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Things to Talk About and Notice

  • Perspective: Marvin sees the world of his everyday life very differently than we do. How would Marvin see your classroom?

  • Social Skills, Friendship: This book has a lot to say about friends and friendship. Do you agree with what it says? What do you think makes a good friend?
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Activities

  • Comparative Literature: Broach has said that she was influenced by the classics such as Charlotte's Web, The Borrowers, and The Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. Has anyone in the class read any of these? In what ways is this book similar? Read the opening chapters of each of these aloud so you can discuss this together.

  • Life Skills, Plumbing: How does a sink drain work? Marvin climbs down the pipe and swims in a pool of water. Where is the pool of water? Get someone from maintenance to show your students how the drain in a sink works. How would you retrieve an object that had washed down the drain?

  • Science: Why does the water stay in the sink drain trap? Make a model of a pipe with a trap out of clear tubing with a funnel at the top and a basin at the bottom. Run water through it. Drop something small enough to fit through the pipe and watch it settle in the trap. What happens when you pour more water down the pipe?

  • Science, Biology, Insects: Find out more about beetles such as their exoskeletons, colorings, wings, dyes made from beetles, the range of beetle species and more. Check out Big Book of Bugs by Theresa Greenaway. How is it that beetles can walk up a wall without falling off?

  • Math, Measurement and Art: Create a miniature home for Marvin's family out of the materials in different environments: nature, the classroom, a living room, a kitchen. Compute sizes proportional to Marvin for things like chairs, tables and beds. The text states that Marvin's family members are "not much bigger than a raisin."

  • Art: Examine Dürer's pen and ink drawings. Read some of the critiques of his work.

  • Art: Experiment with using different methods and tools for pen and ink drawings. Try making different gradations of shading on objects.

  • Art: Go to a local art museum. Look for works of art that have intricate detail.
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Related Books

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    Grades 3 - 5
    The Borrowers by Mary Norton. Illustrated by Beth and Joe Krush. Novel. 192 pages.
    Find this book: Local Bookstore, Amazon, B&N icon

    This is the first of several books about the "Borrowers," tiny people whose society lies "between the cracks" of human lives. The Borrowers take items from humans and use them to make their lives easier, but they try never to be seen by a human because such an encounter always leads to tragedy or trouble for the Borrowers. In this book, Arriety, the child of Homily and Pod Clock (named for the place in which they live), makes friends with a human boy.

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    Grades 3 - 6
    Charlotte's Web by E. B. White. Illustrated by Garth Williams. Novel. 282 pages.
    Find this book: Local Bookstore, Amazon, B&N icon

    This book that's brought tears and laughter to so many generations is a book that we tend to take for granted. No other book in the field has handled the inevitability of the cycle of life with more skill and wisdom. At the same time White pokes gentle fun at advertising and human nature while he celebrates the simplicities of farm life. One more beauty of the work is that it can be understood on so many levels. Children much younger than eight may be too young to deal with the death of a favorite character, but kids from that age up can usually handle it. Read More in our Featured Book article including classroom activities, related books and links.

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    Grades 3 - 6
    From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E. L. Konigsburg. Novel. 176 pages.
    Find this book: Local Bookstore, Amazon, B&N icon

    Claudia Kincaid feels unappreciated at home and so decides to run away. Being a good planner, but poor money manager, she allows her younger brother, Jamie, to join her. They hide out in the Metropolitan Museum of Art and it seems they have thought of everything. Read More in our Featured Book article including classroom activities, related books and links.

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Related Areas Within Carol Hurst's Children's Literature Web Site

  • Featured Subject: Mysteries with our recommendations of fiction and nonfiction books, activities and related links.

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