Sonderbooks Book Review of

The Mona Lisa Vanishes

A Legendary Painter, a Shocking Heist, and the Birth of a Global Celebrity

by Nicholas Day

with art by Brett Helquist

The Mona Lisa Vanishes

A Legendary Painter, a Shocking Heist, and the Birth of a Global Celebrity

by Nicholas Day
with art by Brett Helquist

Review posted March 5, 2024.
Random House Studio, 2023. 276 pages.
Review written February 22, 2024, from a library book.
Starred Review
2024 Robert F. Sibert Medal Winner
2023 CYBILS Award Middle Grade Nonfiction Winner

It's easy to understand the awards this book won. Nicholas Day takes facts and gives us an entertaining and suspenseful story with a conversational tone.

Picture the Mona Lisa. I'm guessing you can easily bring her image to mind. This book tells the story of how she became so famous -- by getting stolen in 1911.

Along the way he gives us the story of the life of Leonardo da Vinci and the story of Lisa Gherardini and how unlikely it was that he would ever paint her portrait. It also tells us about the thief who pulled off the heist, the detectives who utterly failed at finding him, and the stories and publicity that grew up around the theft -- right before World War I started, so it wasn't eclipsed in the press.

He weaves all this together skillfully, mixing chapters about Leonardo during the Renaissance with chapters about Paris in the early twentieth century, never leaving us hanging, but always leaving us wanting more.

You also learn about the background of both settings, with information given as it's needed, never letting the story go slack.

Here's an example about the newspapers of the day:

The Mona Lisa heist ran on the front page of Parisian newspapers every day for over a month. With each story, the painting grew more significant, the loss more tragic. It was no longer just another painting, or even just another great painting. It was a transcendent painting.

Over the next month, it was transformed into a painting that was beloved by all, that spoke to everyone, that moved everyone. In fact, it became less a painting and more an object of worship. It was a myth, a mystery, almost a living being.

"What audacious criminal," asked the magazine L'Illustration, "what mystifier, what manic collector, what insane lover, has committed this abduction?"...

It was the perfect story at the perfect time. Why? Because all of a sudden, people could read.

For centuries, literacy had been a specialized skill. That was changing fast. More people were going to school; more jobs required reading. The result was a surge in literacy.

The side effect was the golden age of newspapers.

In 1870, over one million newspapers were sold every day in Paris. By the time the Mona Lisa was stolen, that number was up to almost six million -- in a city of less than three million. The price of a daily paper was half what it once was. Mass media had arrived.

Read this book for a rip-roaring story (with wonderful illustrations by Brett Helquist), and you will end up learning all kinds of things about Leonardo da Vinci, the Renaissance, the Louvre, early criminal science, and even fake news.