Saturday, August 15, 2015

Chasing Vermeer

Titles:  Chasing Vermeer; The Wright 3; The Calder Game; The Danger Box; Hold Fast; Pieces and

Author:  Blue Balliet

Rating:  *  (1 star out of 3 possible, "C")
              Recommended with Reservations

Audience:  4th grade and up

When my 10 year old discovered these books by Blue Balliet, it was as if a new world was opened up to her.  All of a sudden she was talking about pentominoes, architects, puzzles, artists and Calder sculptures.  (Did you know there's a "Calder" at the public art walk in Seattle?)  This was one of the series she begged me over and over to read for myself.  I finally got around to it when I heard Balliet had published a fourth:  Pieces and Players.

In the first book, Chasing Vermeer, Balliet introduces her nerdy, cross-cultural trio of friends:  Calder Pillay, Petra Andalee and Tommy Segovia from the Hyde Park neighborhood in Chicago.  Actually, they're so busy being suspicious of each other, they aren't quite friends when the book starts.  As they overcome their prejudices they find they have plenty in common when it comes to solving puzzles and helping their favorite 6th grade teacher, Mrs. Hussey.

Calder particularly likes to trust his pentominoes for clues when solving mysteries.  For the uninitiated, pentominoes are 12 puzzle pieces in varying shapes, each made up of 5 squares.  The 12 different shapes represent 12 letters in the alphabet and can even be fitted together in one large rectangle.  When Calder pulls a "U" pentomino out of his pocket, he wonders if it stands for  "understand," or "under," or maybe "University School."  He tells Petra, "They help me figure things out.... seems like the pentominoes kind of talk to me.  I'll get the feeling that they want to tell me something, and so I'll grab one, and a word will just pop into my head."

Tommy and Calder have also created a pentomino code for their correspondence, which is fun for readers to decipher.  Illustrator Brett Helquist has added a picture mystery for readers as well, so this book engages bright readers on multiple levels.  Kids who wish to make their own cardboard pentominoes will even find instructions in the afterword!

Unfortunately, I found the mystery-solving depends a bit too much on coincidence:  getting the "right" clues from your pentominoes, your dreams, or a lady in a painting who talks to you.

Nonetheless, for middle readers who love clever mysteries, the first 3 in the series are a sure-fire hit.  In a casual perusal of The Wright 3 I found references to a Hitchcock movie, an HG Wells novel, ghosts, Fibonacci numbers, and, of course, Frank Lloyd Wright.

However,  The Danger Box and Hold Fast, has Balliet introducing grittier characters with darker backstories.  Naturally, each character possesses unique qualities that add to clever solutions, but parents should be aware that the adult role models are somewhat more dysfunctional.

In her latest book, Pieces and Players, Balliet brings all the characters together to solve the disappearance of 13 pieces of art.  This is based on a true mystery known as the Gardner Museum Heist in Boston, MA.  At Balliet's fictional Farmer Museum in the Chicago setting, thirteen characters (suspects?) will collaborate to solve the mystery.

Fantastic potential!  Intriguing premise!  Disappointing outcome!

The Ouija board makes its appearance about 200 pages into the book, after readers are well-hooked:

"Ouija boards were popular around the time Mrs. Farmer built the museum....  There was nothing spooky or devilish about the game in those days--it was thought of as a way to contact the spirit world.  The Ouija board has a darker reputation now, but not so much then.  We're only going to use it to talk to her ghost."

"Only!"  Tommy thought.

At some point, each family needs to decide for themselves where to draw their proverbial line in the sand, and for us, it's when kids begin to contact the spirit world.  No one is more disappointed than me, who really looked forward to this newest book, and just added the first three to the church library.

All along these books reminded me of Ellen Raskin's masterpiece The Westing Game which offers a more realistic/solvable mystery and possibly a more satisfying conclusion.  (Also have your kids try her Tattooed Potato... and the Mysterious Disappearance of Leon....)  In terms of books that shaped my tweens, The Westing Game and From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler remain my gold standard, and, although not my personal favorite, Blue Balliet has put forth several worthy contemporary efforts.

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