Steve would rather be playing Chalk-Walk or Slurp-n-Kick with Andy than doing his homework. Especially [Slurp-n-Kick,] since what he does is never good enough for his teacher or his father. Andy would rather be anywhere than in the same house with his alcoholic father. When Steve suggests a trip to the abandoned Kruger house, both gladly go. [Of course Steve gladly goes; it was his idea.] They find a mysterious checkerboard that promises to take them back in time to meet artist Pieter Bruegel. [Immediately they realize that there are even worse things than living with demanding and alcoholic fathers.] Steve sees this as a chance to prove how ‘mighty’ he is, but Andy is afraid of the Kruger curse since two teenagers disappeared from the Kruger house a year ago.
Steve finally convinces Andy to follow the directions on the checkerboard, and they, along with Steve’s dog Doorstep, are whisked to the year 1560. Bullies confront Steve and Andy, and Doorstep gets lost chasing them away. [I can buy time travel, and I can buy making a time machine in the form of a checkerboard, but making a time machine that transports the user only to 1560 Flanders?]
The first stop is to a peasant family. [For such a short sentence, it's amazing how much I hate it.] Steve and Andy are given groats for dinner [Interestingly, a groat is a coin from this time period. Also some form of oatmeal. Either definition works.] and hay to sleep on. The family tells a bedtime story about the plague. [ . . . and the mama bear said, "Someone's been sleeping in my bed too. Then the baby bear said, "Someone's still sleeping in my bed . . . and she's covered with buboes! Everybody out! Burn the place down!"] Steve begins to feel funny.
Steve and Andy leave the peasant family and are approached by a band of archers. They use their ingenuity to escape, only to see Doorstep trapped in a cage by a group of strange-looking children. They strike a deal in order to rescue Doorstep. They must work for the owner of the Land of Cockagne [Flemish for cocaine.] -a bakery. They also do chores, such as mixing paints and making gesso, for the owner of an art store. [Did the great masters get their oils at art stores?
Van Gogh: I need some paints.
Clerk: What color?
Van Gogh: Let's see, some gold, some yellow, some flavidus, ochre--
Clerk: I told you last time, "sunflower" is the only shade of yellow we carry.
Van Gogh: You're really limiting my range, I gotta tell you.
Clerk: Do you want it or not?
Van Gogh: What? Could you say that again toward my right ear?]
Looking at the moon which is nearly full, Andy is anxious. [For the infamous Werewolf of Flanders will soon be on the prowl.] After seeing a plague pit and hearing more plague talk, Steve is convinced that his fever must be the plague. Both boys are desperate to find Pieter Bruegel and make it home alive.
Steve and Andy realize that the bullies who confronted them earlier are the same teenagers who disappeared a year ago. It becomes a race to find Bruegel. [Why? Bruegel will send the first two who find him back, but strand anyone else?]
They all find Bruegel at the same time. [Now Bruegel must flip a coin. Possibly a groat.] Bruegel can paint only two home at a time. [If he puts three into the painting, they end up in 1836 Carthage.] After much discussion, the teenagers decide to do volunteer work with peasants. [Huh? They search out the guy so he'll send them home, and they finally find him and your readers are on the edges of their seats wondering if they'll get home, and they postpone leaving to do volunteer work?] Bruegel paints Steve and Andy into his masterpiece ‘Children’s Games’ before painting them back home. [Define "painting them back home."] Steve and Andy’s homecoming is bittersweet. Andy’s father is in rehabilitation. [Doorstep is still in 1560.] Although Steve’s father remains overly critical, Steve is now more confident. They learn about art, life, and each other.
[Below I've reproduced a small portion of Bruegel's Children's Games, the portion that shows Andy and Steve. I've also added a key, as you may not all be familiar with the children's games of the sixteenth century.]
1. Children hold down a whiny kid while a bully defecates on him in a game known as Crap on the Crybaby.
2. Plague-ridden Steve prepares to puke out his guts.
3. A woman carries her mummified child through the streets in a game called Guess Who?
4. Children prepare to scalp a terrified boy.
5. Andy is tossed into the plague pit in a game called Toss the New Kid into the Plague Pit.
6. A clown attempts to stop the bleeding after getting hit with a thrown brick.
I found the synopsis kind of boring, partly because that's the nature of the beast, but also because it didn't focus on the boys' problem. I didn't care about the dog, the peasants, the archers, or even the other time-traveling kids. I had no trouble writing them out of the version below (which, because I haven't read the book, includes some information that may be incorrect). If you were asked for a chapter-by-chapter synopsis, you might include all of the subplots, but not in a two-pager.
Steve's father is never satisfied, and Andy's is never sober. So when the two boys find a magical checkerboard with instructions for traveling back in time, they summon the courage to try it out. Anything's got to be better than their home lives, right? Right. And before they know it, they've been whisked to Europe in the year 1560.
Steve knows the plague has been wiping out a lot of people; he's seen the plague pits. And he's afraid he might be next to go, because he's not feeling so hot. Maybe it was a mistake to come here after all. Unfortunately, the boys know from the instructions on the checkerboard that the only one who can send them back home is a Flemish artist named Pieter Bruegel.
As they travel throughout Flanders, Andy and Steve rely on the kindness of strangers and also work odd jobs. Both boys are desperate to find Bruegel and make it home alive, and when they are hired to mix paints and make gesso for the owner of an art store, it's their lucky break. The owner of the store knows where Bruegel lives.
Bruegel has the magical ability to "paint the boys home" by painting their likenesses on a canvas depicting their homes--which they're only to happy to describe to him. But before he sends them on their way, Bruegel also paints Steve and Andy into his masterpiece, Children’s Games. They're the ones on the left, playing with Gameboys while the other kids are playing Roll the Hoop and Torture the Little Kid.
Steve and Andy’s homecoming is bittersweet. Andy’s father is in rehabilitation, a hopeful sign. Steve’s father remains overly critical, but at least Steve has the satisfaction of infecting him with the plague. Although the boys' future remains uncertain, their adventure in the past has taught them much about art, life, and friendship.
That was about 300 words. As your intention is to slip in some knowledge about art, you could expand it with a couple examples of what Bruegel teaches the boys about his work.