Heavy Medal Mock Newbery Finalist: THE MONA LISA VANISHES by Nicholas Day
Introduction by Heavy Medal Award Committee Member Taylor Deushane:
In THE MONA LISA VANISHES, Nicholas Day makes his Kid Lit debut with the mesmerizing tale of the unlikely creation, theft, and recovery of the world’s most iconic painting. Swapping between the 15th, 16th, and 20th centuries, every chapter has at least one revelation that will have readers turning to the closest person and exclaiming, “DID YOU KNOW?” (My husband kindly requested that I read the book in another room.) I read the first chapter to 4th and 5th grade students back in September, and it has not returned to the shelf since.
If you are familiar with the facts of the case, you’d be forgiven for expecting THE MONA LISA VANISHES to drag throughout its 250+ pages. However, the painting’s thief is only a minor character in this book. Instead, we follow detectives Louis Lépine and Alphonse Bertillon as they chase down leads, grapple with the emerging fields of forensic science, and face a public hungry for a great story. This is where the strongest themes of myth versus reality emerge in the text. People at the time were so desperate for a satisfying narrative that the thief evaded capture for much longer than necessary.
In 1911, art theft was still new. Hollywood wasn’t even an industry. But somehow the story of the brilliant art thief already existed. A half century before Dr. No appeared on screen, Louis Lépine and Alphonse Bertillon were already looking for him.
They weren’t looking for a thief. They were looking for a story. (p 135)
Even after the case was solved, false narratives painting the culprit as a criminal mastermind continued to make headlines.
On the other side of the narrative, the reader follows Leonardo da Vinci from one unfinished project to another, the likelihood of him completing La Joconde growing slimmer and slimmer as he moves across Italy and France, encountering an ever-changing (and often violent) cast of characters. Day does not shy away from da Vinci’s more unsavory habits and hobbies, nor does he mince words about the realities for 15th/16th century women, including the painting’s subject.
In this way, Day develops the setting strongly in both centuries, providing modern readers with the context necessary to understand why the events unfolded as they did. Day also meets the Newbery criteria of presentation of information in a refreshing way. THE MONA LISA VANISHES is incredibly approachable for young readers, full of humorous asides, invitations to imagine, and countless juicy historical tidbits.
THE MONA LISA VANISHES reminds readers of just how great longer narrative nonfiction for children has the potential to be, whether it emerges with a medal or not.
Heavy Medal Award Committee members and others are now invited to discuss this book further in the Comments section below. Let the Mock Newbery discussion begin!
About Steven Engelfried
Steven Engelfried was the Library Services Manager at the Wilsonville Public Library in Oregon until he retired in 2022 after 35 years as a full-time librarian. He served on the 2010 Newbery committee, chaired the 2013 Newbery Committee, and also served on the 2002 Caldecott committee. You can reach him at email@example.com.
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