Written by Laura Marx Fitzgerald
Published by Dial Books for Young Readers, 2016
Grades 5 and up
It’s said that what happened to the once vibrant, brazen heiress “Wild Rose” Pritchard is “What happens to most girls . . . She got married. She settled, eventually. And then—” But there’s no need for Martha’s mother to finish the sentence because all of 1920s New York City’s high society knows that Rose Pritchard—now Rose Sewell, wife of newspaper mogul J. Archer Sewell—has “gone mad.” Being somewhat cheeky herself, twelve-year old Martha can’t help but become fascinated with the mysteriously cloistered Mrs. Sewell, as she joins her mother as a servant at the gilded Sewell mansion. Mrs. Sewell, Martha is continuously told, must never deviate from specific routines or leave her room, where she keeps a priceless art collection. It doesn’t take long for Martha to suspect foul play and devise a rescue, especially once she surmises that the few valuable paintings Mrs. Sewell sends down to hang in the gallery are actually hidden cries for help. With The Gallery, author Laura Marx Fitzgerald offers a mystery that will delight fans of Chasing Vermeer, The Westing Game, and even Jane Eyre. Fitzgerald deftly weaves notable newsworthy events of the era into the plot and setting, building a rich historical context around the characters. Perhaps more compelling, though, are the narratives she entwines around the paintings themselves, all of which are in actual existence. An author’s note answers questions for readers wanting to know more about the paintings, the 1920s, and the real-life inspiration for the mystery. The Gallery lends itself superbly for use in humanities and history classes, as well as for readers who simply enjoy puzzles, mysteries, and fine art.
Visual Literacy and Reading Art. Without developing her visual literacy skills, Martha might not have been able to decipher Mrs. Sewell’s messages in the gallery paintings. Project images of the paintings featured in the novel (available on Laura Marx Fitzgerald’s website ) for students to observe and discuss. Review artistic principles, such as color, line, light and shadow, and texture with students to support their visual literacy skills. Teach about symbolism and motif, too. With that information, engage students in close reading and analyses of other famous artwork. The Getty Museum’s Art Scoops website offers a kid-friendly interactive website to learn about the stories behind some famous artwork.
Where Art and Literature Meet. Stories that center their plot around famous works of art highlight the many ways in which the two disciplines converge. Each of the paintings hanging in the Sewell mansion gallery tells its own story, often capturing a specific moment in that story. Additionally, many of the paintings’ subjects rise from traditional literary works, such as Rossetti’s Prosperina (Proserpina) which depicts the mythical tale of the Roman goddess Proserpina/Greek goddess Persephone. Gather a text set of art (e.g., paintings, sculptures, tapestries, pottery, songs) and literature (e.g., myths, legends, fables, folktales) that are grounded in the same story. For example, the ancient Greek pottery displayed at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology depicting Herakles (Hercules) battling the lion and the bull can be paired with a printed version of the story. Have students compare and contrast the ways the stories are told, paying close attention to the strengths of using specific artistic media. What interpretations of the stories are highlighted? How are characters depicted? What patterns do they notice across the different modes and media? Challenge students to create their own text sets of art and literature with the help of a school or local librarian.
The Roaring Twenties: Contextualizing the Setting – The Sewell mansion and the mysteries hidden within it are surrounded by a city and time in which significant political, economic, technological, cultural, and social change was happening. Have students further explore a particular historical event or movement mentioned in the novel, either as a whole class or in small groups or pairs, with each selecting a topic that interests them. Among the topics central to the plot that students can research are the Stock Market Crash, Vaudeville, the Women’s Rights Movement, newspaper and tabloid journalism, and Prohibition. Author Laura Marx Fitzgerald’s website provides a wonderful assortment of links to primary source documents related to the content and setting of her novel. See also the additional websites listed in Further Explorations below.
Flashback as a Narrative Frame. The novel begins in the present day, with Martha celebrating her 100th birthday and preparing to finally tell the world what truly happened to “Wild Rose.” From there, Fitzgerald goes back in time to 1928 to chronicle the events through Martha’s narration. The novel returns to the present in the last chapter to wrap up loose ends and provide a sense of closure. Discuss the use of flashback as a narrative frame with your students. Share other examples of stories that are also framed with flashbacks, such as The Lorax, by Dr. Seuss, Miss Rumphius, by Barbara Cooney, The Wreck of the Zephyr, by Chris Van Allsburg, Walk Two Moons, by Sharon Creech, and A Bandit’s Tale, by Deborah Hopkinson. You might also want to show selected clips of some popular children’s movies, such as The Lorax and Despicable Me 2, that use flashback. Have students discuss the use of flashback with a writer’s eye. Why would an author use flashback to frame a story, instead of just telling the story in the time it happened? What does a flashback frame reveal about the characters in the book? After discussing and taking notes on students’ analyses, invite students to try using this type of flashback in any of their narrative writing, whether personal narrative or fiction.
Sensationalistic Journalism. As referenced in the novel, particularly through Mr. Sewell’s activities, the 1920s saw a major turn in the content of newspapers, in which subjects were selected more for their entertainment value and articles written without much research or fact-checking. Have students research the rise of sensationalistic journalism in the 1920s, including its manifestations as “yellow journalism” and “jazz journalism.” Have them find, compare, and contrast examples of 1920s sensationalistic journalism with today’s examples in tabloids, online new sources, and television shows. What has changed? What hasn’t? What impact does such journalism have on society? How might readers approach it with a more critical eye? You might want to share some of the online articles listed below in Further Explorations to push their thinking further.
Ripped from the Headlines. In her Author’s Note, Fitzgerald explains how newspaper articles provided much fodder for her own stories. After they read the Author’s Note, have students try their own hand at constructing fictional stories from real-life ones. Give them time to search through online and print newspapers, jotting down headlines that intrigue them and reading the corresponding articles. Guide students as they brainstorm and prewrite ideas about how they could “steal all the best bits” of the news articles they found “and mash them up together.” Take them through the rest of the writing process, and provide them with an opportunity to share their published fiction pieces with an audience. You might have students do this individually or collaborate and co-write in small groups.
Puzzle Mysteries and Other Mystery Subgenres. As mentioned, The Gallery can be described as a puzzle mystery, in which a puzzle must be solved to answer the unknown question (e.g., “Whodunnit?” or in this case, “What happened to Mrs. Sewell?”). The author provides readers with the clues to solving the puzzle along with the characters in the book. If you’re a careful enough reader, you just might solve the puzzle before the characters do. Other examples of puzzle mysteries include The Calder Game, by Blue Balliett, and the Newbery Award winning The Westing Game, by Ellen Raskin. Introduce your students to the various subgenres of mystery, from caper to detective fiction to true crime. With the help of your school or local librarian, gather examples of each mystery subgenre to share with your students. Have them compare and contrast the different subgenres, noting their unique characteristics. Then, invite students to select one of the mystery subgenres and try writing their own mystery in that vein.
Women’s Rights and Gender Discrimination. In 1920, the 19th Amendment was signed into law in the U.S., granting women the right to vote. However, the women’s rights movement still had a long battle to fight on the social and professional front. Fitzgerald raises some of these issues in both the mundane, personal interactions and the broader public sphere for her characters. Have students identify when and how the novel addresses women’s rights and gender discrimination. Guide them to conduct research and consider carefully whether the novel’s depictions are true to its historical setting or perhaps more in line with contemporary views. You may need to remind them that there have always been examples of progressive and independent women throughout history. To that end, that you may need to help students search for and analyze these resources with a critical eye so they don’t fall into the trap of assuming monolithic or dualistic representations of the past compared to the present.
Including “Other” Cultural and Social Developments. Though The Gallery contains an impressive amount of historical events and cultural ethos, both across the country and specific to New York City, woven into its pages, a lot is still left out or glossed over. For example, the Harlem Renaissance, which celebrated rapid literary and artistic developments in the Black community, is hardly mentioned. After conducting an initial study of the 1920s with your students in relation to The Gallery, have them inquire further to determine which events were given voice in the novel, and which ones were not. Challenge them to write a short “missing” chapter that features one or more of the historical events that were left out.
Laura Marx Fitzgerald’s website (provides images of the paintings in the novel, as well as primary source documents from 1920s)
The Roaring Twenties
Stock Market Crash of 1929
Websites about Vaudeville
Websites about Yellow Journalism and Tabloid Journalism
Articles about Sensationalistic Journalism
Is Sensationalism in the Media Bad?
How Sensational News Stories Distract Us from Real Crises
The Science of Journalism: Why Sensational Sells
Websites about Prohibition
Websites about the Women’s Rights Movement
Balliett, B. (2004). Chasing Vermeer. Ill. by B. Helquist. New York: Scholastic.
Balliett, B. (2007). The Wright 3. Ill. by B. Helquist. New York: Apple Signature/Scholastic.
Balliett, B. (2008). The Calder game. Ill. by B. Helquist. New York: Scholastic.
Balliett, B. (2015). Pieces and players. Ill. by B. Helquist. New York: Scholastic.
Broach, E. (2008). Masterpiece. Ill. by K. Murphy. New York: Holt.
Fitzgerald, L. M. (2015). Under the egg. New York: Dial.
Konigsburg, E. L. (2007/1970). From the mixed-up files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. New York: Atheneum.
Raskin, E. (2003/1978). The Westing game. New York: Dutton Books for Young Readers.
Raskin, E. (2011/1971). The mysterious disappearance of Leon (I mean Noel). New York: Dutton Books for Young Readers.
Raskin, E. (2011/1975). The tattooed potato and other clues. New York: Puffin Books.
Filed under: Fiction, Historical Fiction, Novels
About Grace Enriquez
Grace is an associate professor of language and literacy at Lesley University. A former English Language Arts teacher, reading specialist, and literacy consultant, she teaches and writes about children’s literature, critical literacies, and literacies and embodiment. Grace is co-author of The Reading Turn-Around and co-editor of Literacies, Learning, and the Body.
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