Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Blue Balliett

Chasing Vermeer
by Blue Balliett
Recommended Age: 11+

Calder and Petra are sixth-graders at the University of Chicago Laboratory School. Their teacher, Ms. Hussey, is a wonderful young lady who spends most of her time suggesting ideas for her class to think about, and very little time lecturing information at them. Things are going pretty swell for them, except that Calder is a bit eccentric and his only friend moved to New York over the summer, and Petra is even stranger besides being the oldest of five children in a house filled with chaos. They live three doors down from each other on a street near the University, and they are in the same class, but they aren’t really friends.

Then coincidences start popping up. Some of them have to do with a book called Lo! by Charles Fort, a famous non-conformist thinker who challenged everyone’s basic ideas about reality. Some of the coincidences have to do with a priceless painting by a mysterious 17th-century Dutchman. Mysterious letters, a stolen masterpiece, a missing child, suspicious neighbors, showers of frogs, a talking painting, and pentominoes (a puzzle game using twelve differently-shaped pieces) that display remarkable problem-solving powers, all play a part – not only in a staggering series of coincidences, but in a creepy, dangerous, sensational puzzle-mystery.

The book that came to mind most often, as I read this, was The Westing Game – another book billed as a “puzzle mystery.” But Chasing Vermeer leans more heavily on the mystery, ironically. It’s only that an additional puzzle runs through the book, embedded in the illustrations by Series of Unfortunate Events artist Brett Helquist. There are also coded messages for you to decode, classic paintings for you to discover, weird ideas for you to think about, and all kinds of ways to stretch your brain and to try out new ways of thinking. Bright children will love this book; average children may actually be brighter after reading it.

Interestingly enough, when I looked up Charles Fort’s book Lo! on Amazon (ISBN 1596050284), it turns out you can buy the paperback together with a set of Pentominoes for $23.75. Hmmmm....could that be a coincidence?

The Wright 3
by Blue Balliett
Recommended Age: 12+

In this sequel to Chasing Vermeer, three young unconventional thinkers solve another mystery involving art, crime, and (possibly) the paranormal. Once again set in the Hyde Park neighborhood of Chicago, The Wright 3 reunites the heroes of the first book and adds a third. Calder, who does a lot of free-association thinking aided by a set of three-dimensional pentominoes, finds himself torn between his new best friend—Petra, who discovers things through writing—and his old best friend who had moved away but has now moved back—fish-collecting, treasure-finding Tommy, whose habit of jealousy is unattractive yet understandable, considering that he has been abandoned by not one but two fathers.

Now Tommy lives next door to the Robie House, a 100-year-old masterpiece by architect Frank Lloyd Wright, which is now in danger of being pulled down and displayed in pieces at museums around the world. Together, and sometimes separately, the three youthful sleuths try to get to the bottom of mysteries surrounding a house that sometimes seems to have a life, even a mind and will, of its own. Their snooping uncovers tragedies and treasures in the house’s history, plus some present-day oddities—including a suspicious accident, strange patterns in the custom-designed art glass windows, movements behind the windows when the house is supposed to be empty, and perhaps a portentous connection with a classic tale of horror and suspense. Plus, while they work on solving the mystery of the house’s past and saving its future, the three children also have problems in their relationship that need to be worked out.

If you like a quirky, slightly creepy mystery full of clues, codes, symbols, and puzzles, be sure to visit The Wright 3. Author Balliett has a special way of endearing her young characters to you, even though they are unusual heroes in many ways. And illustrator Brett Helquist, best known for his work on Lemony Snicket’s books, provides a set of full-page illustrations that are worth studying in detail. The most mysterious secret of this book, like Chasing Vermeer, is how it provokes thought (and even at times passion) while at the same time offering pure entertainment.

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