Theodora Tenpenny is the 13-year-old protagonist of Under the Egg. When we first meet Theo she is trying to keep her household together after the unexpected death of her grandfather, Jack. Her mother is in her own world, rarely leaves the house, working continuously on algebraic equations in her room and has no realistic abilities to run the day to day functions of the house or her daughter. Theodora is often hungry, trying to provide meals for both herself and her mother from the garden in the backyard and some carefully and specifically chosen purchases–each of which depletes the total sum of money (less than $400) they have left.
The day that Jack had died his last words to Theo had been
It’s under the egg…Look under the egg….There’s…a letter….And a treasure.
The egg to which Jack is referring involves Theo’s “first official chore in the Tenpenny house.” Every morning after they had gathered the eggs from the chickens, Jack and Theo would pick the most perfect egg of the morning’s collection and she would place it in a small bowl on the mantel. Jack would say
A new day, a new beginning, a new chance at a new ending.
which, as Theo says, was as close to praying as her grandfather ever got.
So we begin Theo’s story with heartbreak, hardship and the first clue to a mysterious treasure hunt. Theo starts to hunt for what, exactly, Jack left her “under the egg.” She checks under the bowl, she looks at the mantel and she looks at the painting, an old one of Jack’s (he was a painter) which hangs behind the egg dish above the mantel. She takes this old painting down, poring over the front and back without seeing anything of value or another clue. Then, as a result of being startled by a mouse, Theo accidentally spills part of a bottle of rubbing alcohol on the painting and finds that there is a painting underneath her grandfather’s canvas.
The discovery of what appears to be a Madonna and Child composition launches Theodora on the trail of the painter who created it as well as trying to determine its rightful ownership. Along her research journey Theodora encounters a new friend her own age as well as several individuals in her neighborhood who step forward to help her.
As someone whose original college degree is in Art History I LOVED the historical and artistic details of Theo’s dilemma. I was enthralled from the beginning and read the story very quickly. I am impressed by both the realistic details of a mystery that could have been wildly exaggerated and therefore less effective in the overall scope of character and story. Theo’s realization at the end of the fact that her world can be larger than the confines of her own house is just as monumental as the successful conclusion of both the moral and practical issues surrounding the re-discovered masterpiece under the egg!
I know this is a Division II nominee, but I think it’s a great read-aloud for a 4th grade classroom during the second half of the year as well. It would make a great companion piece to an Art Unit on the Italian Renaissance (or Raphael specifically) or a Science Unit on X-ray or chemical reactions in terms of art restoration and the now common practice of X-raying canvases newly acquired by museums.