Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Module 9: Chasing Vermeer by Blue Balliett, Illustrated by Brett Helquist

In transit to the Art Institute of Chicago from the National Gallery in Washington, D.C. a priceless Vermeer painting is stolen. Through major news papers the thief informs the public that many paintings attributed to Vermeer are fakes and he will destroy the stolen painting if the record isn’t set straight by the art community. While the public responds to the thief’s message with outcry to the art community, two Chicago schoolchildren, Petra and Calder hunt down the painting. Petra and Calder manage to save the painting through intelligence and by noticing the many coincidences that bring key players in this story together.

Chasing Vermeer is an incredible book. Petra and Calder are realistic characters that are quirky enough to capture the reader’s attention. In addition to creating great characters, Balliett sets these two in a plot that is worth following. This book moves along without a hitch, the pace is fast and leaves the reader wanting more. The setting is crystal clear and the mood of this story is well established but descriptive language does not bog the reader down. Beyond being a well written story, this book is a lesson in art and would make an excellent cross curriculum read for English, social studies and art classes. Teachers and parents could also use this book as a pre-read before going to a museum or taking a trip to Chicago.

Review: Horn Book Magazine
"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.

Suggested Activities
Honoring Calder’s coded correspondence in Chasing Vermeer I would have readers create a coded message recommending this book to a friend. The message would, of course, include a key for the code.

Balliett, B. (2004) Chasing Vermeer. New York: Scholastic. ISBN: 0439372976.

[Review for the book Chasing Vermeer by Blue Balliett]. Horn Book Magazine, 80(4), 446-446.

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