Third-graders snare Parisian art thief; The Mona Lisa Mystery, by Pat Hutchins. Illustrated by Laurence Hutchins. New York: Greenwillow Books. $8.95.
"The Mona Lisa Mystery" is a child's dream and possibly a parent's nightmare. In its charmingly convoluted plot, the third grade of an English elementary school takes a week-long holiday in Paris (imagine supervising such a group and you can see why the book would give teachers shudders, too).Even before the children set foot on French soil, bizarre events begin to occur; they're being shadowed by a series of strangers. It turns out that their susbtitute teacher -- a category of person who must rank next to stepmothers as a most-sinister group -- is a thief in league with a forger and an imposter physician in a plot to steal the Mona Lisa.
Before the book's end, the painting is taken, one child is temporarily held hostage, all are made captives in a chateau, and the guiltness instructor who's chaperoning them is arrested by mistake. No one, of course, is hurt, and the president of France is so pleased that the third grade has helped to recover the masterpiece that he awards the children the Legion of Honor -- a prize that can't bring half as much satisfaction as knowing that they've outwitted the grown-ups all along.
If this sounds like superior children's fare, it is -- so superior that it may provide some difficulties for its readers. The vocabulary and a few of the descriptions (". . .Jessica, looking like Lady Macbeth in her white nightie. . .") are probably too sophisticated for a child reading at the level of the book's third-grade protagonists. And although Pat Hutchins has filled the story with enough humorous episodes to make readers of all ages laugh, many of the best jokes will be appreciated more by adults: one student collapsing in horror because she believes that the "poisson" on the French menu means poison; the manager of the hotel giving his guests the four-star menu of his former place of employ, only to admit, after singing the praises of all the delicacies requested , that the only thing he has to offer is fish and chips.
The solution to this problem may be to pass "The Mona Lisa Mystery" along to slightly older readers, or, better yet, read it out loud and explain the nuances -- it's just too good to miss. Even though some parents may blanch at some of the third graders' more grisly imaginings -- sharks in the English Channel and bloodstained ghosts at the hotel -- children will recognize and enjoy their own speculations and Laurence Hutchin's accompanying whimsical drawings. They will be especially pleased to see how many of the young pupils' theories turn out to be true. This is one school field trip that doesm become an adventure -- and for what more could a child ask?