“Once you fall in love with them, you stay in love with them,” author Marianne Malone says. It’s a simple declaration, offered without fuss, just a matter-of-fact tone. We’re standing amid the object of her affection: the Thorne Miniature Rooms at the Art Institute of Chicago.
An art historian by degree, Urbana teacher by trade, Malone finds herself embarking, at age 53, on a thrilling new career, thanks to this very exhibit. Her debut novel, The Sixty-Eight Rooms, came out almost two years ago. The book—about a pair of adventurous tweens who find a magic key that allows them to shrink and enter the Thorne Rooms—became a kid-lit hit. Now it’s put the downstate resident in the coveted spot of an author with a popular fantasy series to her name. The first sequel, Stealing Magic, goes on sale in January.
A Chicago native who grew up mostly in Park Forest, Malone remembers visiting AIC often with her mom in the ’60s. She was fascinated by the rooms, which painstakingly replicate the design aesthetics from across eight centuries and three continents. As a mom, she shared that love with her kids in the ’80s and ’90s. A few years ago, when visiting her daughter at college, Malone spied a copy of Miniature Rooms, AIC’s official catalog of the collection, on her daughter’s desk.
It turns out, her daughter would page through the book when she was stressed, escaping into the jaw-droppingly detailed worlds created by Mrs. Thorne and her craftsmen. “I started thinking about that,” Malone recalls, mulling the rooms’ endless source of fascination. “And about a week later, I had the idea for the book.”
As she wrote, Malone was teaching art to middle-school girls, like her protagonist. Although she didn’t realize it then, she’d hit upon an ideal storytelling engine: Ruthie and Jack, in their five-inch state, discover that the Thorne rooms are also portals to the past. “I thought to myself, ‘I bet my students would like to read that story,’ ” and she was right. After her husband, those students were among the first to read a draft of The Sixty-Eight Rooms. When they approved, Malone knew she had something.
She’s already finished writing the third book, and recently signed a contract for a fourth. “I don’t know if there’s a fifth,” she says as we stroll the exhibit. But then Lindsay Mican Morgan, the rooms’ curator (or “the mayor of Tiny Town,” she jokes) pipes in.
“There are indeed 68 rooms here,” Morgan says. “There is also a 69th room that I’ve threatened Marianne with. It’s not been on view since the ’60s.”
The Sixty-Ninth Room!? Sounds like the title for a fifth book to us.
Stealing Magic: A Sixty-Eight Rooms Adventure comes out January 24.