Blue Balliett's beguiling tale makes children think twice about art
Eight-year-olds should not be underestimated. Just ask author Blue Balliett, who says children of that age "have tremendous brain power and are not bound by convention." In fact, Balliett says she couldn't have written her new novel, Chasing Vermeer, without having taught for a decade at the University of Chicago's Laboratory School. "I learned so much by being able to watch so many different kinds of brains every year," she says.
In Chasing Vermeer—a multilayered story about art and learning, coincidence and mystery—protagonists Petra Andalee and Calder Pillay serve as "a vote of confidence for kids' brain power, at a time when not much credence is given [in the education field] to kids' thinking and imagination . . . everything is quite formulaic these days."
Balliett has created an intriguing fictional world where patterns and coincidences deserve a second look, and happenstance can hold great meaning. Petra and Calder, two inquisitive, imaginative sixth-graders, join forces to track down the thief who has stolen a valuable Vermeer painting—no small task, especially when mysterious letters appear in mailboxes up and down the street of their neighborhood, the neighbors are acting cagey, and their beloved teacher, Ms. Hussey, has become a bit twitchy. The case soon becomes a national scandal, but the two children explore the Hyde Park area of Chicago and learn more about Vermeer as their determination to rescue the painting grows.
The book's masterfully detailed, richly colored illustrations by Brett Helquist (of Lemony Snicket fame) add to the story's appeal by offering more than mere representation of the book's events (keep an eye out for clues to a secret message!). The pictures—each of which is an oil painting—are not only lovely to look at, but accurate as well. "[Helquist] visited Hyde Park in order to make the illustrations true to their environment," Balliett notes, and while there, he studied everything from buildings to gargoyles to an ornately carved staircase.
Balliett says writing the book was "like weaving. I did a string based on art, wove across that with the pentominoes [mathematical tools], and added in the classroom scenes. I wanted people to read the book on different levels. It [ended up being] more complex than I thought it would be." And, she adds, "Kids are such natural pattern-makers; they can live with gray areas better than adults can."
Matters of perspective and imagination fascinate Balliett, and both are important elements of Chasing Vermeer, as is art, of course—a topic that has interested the author since childhood. She grew up in Manhattan, "an easy walk from the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Frick Collection, at a time when kids could wander in and out without paying big fees." It was then that she became familiar with Vermeer and his work, which, she says, offers a "sense of immediacy, of peering into a private relaxed world. It appeals to all kinds of people."
Balliett never liked "being told what to think" about art, whether on a museum tour or as a student in a classroom. To engage her own students at the Lab School, "I used to make scavenger hunts. We set off three different alarms on one trip to the Art Institute of Chicago." Aside from irritating the security guards, such exercises were intended to get the children to really think about art. "Kids are good critical thinkers, if you let them do it."
This conviction drove Balliett to write Chasing Vermeer. "There's been nothing since The Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler that exposed kids to real art issues," she says. "I was looking for a way kids can feel comfortable thinking about real art, and the real questions art historians live with."
Readers who find themselves energized by the twists and turns, the puzzles and problems, presented in Chasing Vermeer will be pleased to learn that Petra and Calder will return in Balliett's next book. It will be "set in Hyde Park, with ghosts in it," and Helquist will do the artwork. In the meantime, though, Balliett will be visiting bookstores and schools, and attending a luncheon in honor of Chasing Vermeer at the Art Institute of Chicago. Will the security guards be ready for her?
Linda M. Castellitto wrote a paper about Vermeer for a college class. She got an A-minus. Copyright 2004 BookPage Reviews.
Horn Book Guide Reviews 2004 Fall
Sixth-grade classmates Petra Andalee and Calder Pillay are drawn into a mysterious claim that some of the works attributed to Johannes Vermeer were not, in fact, painted by that seventeenth-century Dutch artist. The protagonists are smart and appealing, the prose style is agreeably quirky, and fans of puzzle-mysteries will enjoy cracking the codes presented within the text and hidden in the illustrations. Copyright 2004 Horn Book Guide Reviews.
Horn Book Magazine Reviews 2004 #4
"Dear Friend: I would like your help in identifying a crime that is now centuries old." Sixth-grade classmates Petra Andalee and Calder Pillay are drawn into the mystery: a claim that some of the works attributed to Johannes Vermeer were not, in fact, painted by that seventeenth-century Dutch artist. Their investigation--fueled by the enigmatic behavior of their favorite teacher, a shared interest in unexplained phenomena, and a few mystical experiences of their own--uncovers a series of coincidences and connections that, like the pentomino set (a puzzle-like math tool) Calder carries in his pocket, fit together in often-unexpected patterns. And when Vermeer's A Lady Writing disappears while in transit from the National Gallery to the Art Institute of Chicago, Petra and Calder end up hunting for the missing painting right in their own neighborhood. The protagonists are smart and appealing, the prose style is agreeably quirky, and fans of puzzle-mysteries will enjoy cracking the codes presented within the text and hidden in Helquist's stylish black-and-white illustrations. But they may also be frustrated that such a heady, elaborately plotted novel comes to a weak resolution, as the answers to the mysteries are explained away in a too-hasty summation--and the villain turns out to be an offstage figure. The conclusion may be disappointing, but the chase to the end is entertaining. Copyright 2004 Horn Book Magazine Reviews.
Kirkus Reviews 2004 May #2
Art, intrigue, and plenty of twists and turns make this art mystery a great read. Petra Andalee and Calder Pillay set out to find the connection between their teacher (a freewheeling constructivist teacher), the eccentric woman in their neighborhood, the bookstore owner, and an international art thief. Balliett intersperses fascinating information about Johannes Vermeer and his paintings throughout the two friends' quest to solve the mystery-a mystery layered with pentominoes (a mathematical tool consisting of 12 pieces), puzzling clues, and suspicious strangers. Helquist's detailed black-and-white chapter illustrations hold hidden messages, clues related to the pentominoes, and more puzzles. Fans of E.L. Konigsburg's From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler or Ellen Raskin's The Westing Game will find equal pleasure in this debut by a talented writer. (Fiction. 11-14) Copyright Kirkus 2004 Kirkus/BPI Communications.All rights reserved.
Library Media Connection Reviews 2004 October
In a combination mystery, puzzle, and artistically related book, very precocious sixth graders Petra and Calder are drawn into a mystery by seemingly unrelated events. Their teacher has asked them to write about a life-changing letter, which either they or someone they knew sent or received. Juxtaposed with this are three letters that are sent to three seemingly unrelated people who all become involved with the children. Calder has a best friend, Tommy, who has moved away after his mother remarries. They send letters to each other in code. When a world-famous Vermeer painting is stolen, the perpetrator claims to be trying to bring to light the controversy over whether Vermeer actually painted all the artwork attributed to him. Letters are sent to the newspapers taking first one and then the other side. The population is overtaken by the interest this engenders. This book would be a perfect fit for collaborating with the art teacher to incorporate literature into an art lesson. The back cover states that there is a related interactive game at scholastic.com. There is also a mathematical connection, which could afford collaborative lessons with math teachers as the magic of pentominoes is explained. An enticing puzzle within a puzzle is included in the illustrations with a secret message hidden there. Recommended. Ellen Spring, Librarian, Rockland (Maine) District Middle School Â© 2004 Linworth Publishing, Inc.
Publishers Weekly Reviews 2004 June #2
Puzzles nest within puzzles in this ingeniously plotted and lightly delivered first novel that, revolving around the heist of a Vermeer painting, also touches on the nature of coincidence, truth, art and similarly meaty topics. Petra Andalee and Calder Pillay become friends in sixth grade at a school operated by the University of Chicago (Balliett taught at the University's Lab Schools), both of them independent thinkers excited by their maverick teacher, Ms. Hussey. For reasons unknown to her students, the teacher asks her class to ponder the importance of letters (the epistolary sort) and to mull over Picasso's ideas about art as "a lie that tells the truth." Readers have the edge on the characters, being privy to an enigmatic letter sent to three unidentified persons outlining a centuries-old "crime" against a painter's artistic legacy. These mysteries deepen exponentially when someone steals a Vermeer masterpiece and holds it hostage, demanding scholarly redress for misattributions within Vermeer's small oeuvre. The art mystery and the crisp intelligence of the prose immediately recall E.L. Konigsburg, but Balliett is an original: her protagonists also receive clues through dreams, pentominoes (math tools with alphabetic correspondences), secret codes (including some left to readers to decipher) and other deliberately non-rational devices. Helquist (the Lemony Snicket books) compounds the fun with drawings that incorporate the pentomino idea to supply visual clues as well. Thick with devilish red herrings, this smart, playful story never stops challenging (and exhilarating) the audience. Ages 8-12. (June) Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
School Library Journal Reviews 2004 July
Gr 5-8-Fans of Ellen Raskin's The Westing Game (Dutton, 1978) and E. L. Konigsburg's From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler (Turtleback, 1967) will welcome this novel about two classmates determined to solve the mystery of a missing painting. Brainy 12-year-olds Petra Andalee and Calder Pillay attend the University of Chicago Laboratory School where their teacher's unorthodox methods make learning an adventure. When Vermeer's A Lady Writing disappears on its way to exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago, the two overcome their adolescent awkwardness and let their friendship bloom, pooling their talents to rescue the masterpiece and expose the thief. Many elements play a role in unraveling the secrets surrounding the crime: Calder's set of pentominoes; his encoded correspondence with his friend Tommy about a missing boy named Frog; and Petra's intuitive communing with the woman in the painting, all augmented by the unusual ideas presented in a strange old book that Petra has found. Balliett also provides lots of plot twists and red herrings along the way. Helquist's atmospheric black-and-white illustrations add to the fun, incorporating clues to a secret message, the answer to which can be found on the publisher's Web site. Puzzles, codes, letters, number and wordplay, a bit of danger, a vivid sense of place, and a wealth of quirky characters enrich the exciting, fast-paced story that's sure to be relished by mystery lovers.-Marie Orlando, Suffolk Cooperative Library System, Bellport, NY Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
VOYA Reviews 2004 December
Mix classic artworks with crime? It seems to be a popular plot that makes its way here to a thriller for young readers. Two eccentric sixth graders at the University School find themselves in the middle of a major art theft. Who was Vermeer? What does Charles Fort have to do with it all? (He was real.) And why do Petra and Calder get clues about what has happened? Petra sees images that relate to the picture of the lady, and Calder's favorite game pieces, from pentominoes, give him clues. Their teacher, Miss Hussey, seems to be involved, as does elderly Mrs. Sharpe, and perhaps Calder's father. And then there is something odd about Mr. Watch from Powell's Bookstore. Calder's friend Tommy sends coded messages and then goes missing. Plenty of clues, wrong directions, speculation, and good guesses lead Petra and Calder on a sequence of adventures to find the art work before it is destroyed. This exciting romp will appeal to middle school readers and make them think about clues and even art. The adults are given good characterizations although the young people do not know whom to trust and perhaps get in a little deeper than they should. The ending comes a bit too quickly without enough evolution and there are a number of loose ends, but most readers will overlook this flaw for the fun. The illustrations by Helquist, of Lemony Snicket fame, contain hidden messages that present challenging puzzles to the reader.-Patricia Morrow 4Q 4P M J Copyright 2004 Voya Reviews.