The Case of the Mona Lisa by Yvonne Jones is a lively and inventive beginning to The Amulet of Amser series for children, aimed at 5 to 7-year-olds. On a visit to his grandfather’s house, Wen is told of an old family secret that he’s now ready to hear: members of his family can travel back in time.
What’s more, Wen’s family is tasked with saving priceless works of art that have been stolen throughout history. Wen’s first task is to rescue the Mona Lisa in 1911 – a theft that really happened, which added to the painting’s aura. Wen must steal the Mona Lisa back and evade the thief, so the painting is put back in its rightful place.
This is a really magical book full of intrigue and excitement that young children will want to come back to, as well as read other books in the series (Van Gogh’s “Starry Night” is next). Wen’s grandfather’s secret turns him into an instant superhero who has an enticing new degree of independence and responsibility all at once. Children will be drawn to Wen’s new sense of freedom and adventure.
Though this short book works well for younger readers, it does call for more detail, and it could have been pushed to a middle grade novel. For example, after Wen’s grandfather tells him about members of his family being able to time travel, Wen is dropped quickly into 1911 France, with no preparation of where he’s going or what he’s there to do. Though children may find this exciting and adventurous, there is so much more that could have been done with this premise. As a component of the book is to teach kids about great works of art, Jones could have also worked in more about the local customs of where he’s traveling. Additionally, the fact that his grandfather doesn’t tell him very much before he makes the leap is somewhat disconcerting, especially because he has to deal with a dangerous art thief.
What this is basically saying is that Jones’ premise is very good; so good that it begs for more. As the book stands – a book for younger readers – there’s plenty to get kids exciting about reading, or being read to. Jones’ is great at setting the scene. You really do feel like you’re in historical Paris. The sights, the sounds, the smells are all there. And what Jones leaves out can really get a child’s imagination churning.
The illustrations throughout the book are also very nicely done. The cover is not as evocative and moody as the illustrations inside, which are drawn in black and white with striking linework to give the illustrations a real sense of movement. The drawings are slightly haunting, but not scary, that speak of dusty old books and family secrets that are core to the Amser series.
Overall, this is a great intro to a new series for children. Jones could spread out a bit more and add even more detail, but this is a great concept that will slyly teach kids about world history, and great works of art, camouflaged in a time travel yarn that kids will really enjoy.