By Blue Balliet. Scholastic Press, 2006. This is the second book by Balliet featuring Petra and Calder, two twelve year old students in the sixth grade at the University School in Hyde Park, Chicago. Their teacher is the wonderful Ms. Hussey, who Calder's friend Tommy describes as having "long hair and lots of earrings, and yesterday she had worn pajamas. Tommy didn't think she looked like a teacher at all, but to his amazement the class paid close attention to her." Tommy has returned to the neighborhood and the school after briefly moving away with his mother and his new stepdad, who turned out to be a disappointment and was criminally involved in the disappearance of the Vermeer painting in the previous Balliet book Chasing Vermeer. Tommy is a little uncomfortable with the changes in his friend Calder and Calder's new friendship with Petra. As the story progresses the trio work through their difficulties and form an investigating, crime-fighting team.
One of the buildings on in Hyde Park, on the edge of the University of Chicago, is Frank Lloyd Wright's famous 1910 masterpiece the Robie House. The novel setting is based on reality and you can learn more about the Robie House online. One of the major features of Wright's house is the many huge art glass windows lining the walls. To me personally this is the most beautiful and compelling aspect of the house. The windows play a large part in the story as they wink, move and speak to the children in code. This window in particular becomes important in the story.
The Robie House is owned by the University of Chicago and in this story it has not been kept up. It hasn't been occupied for many years and the cost of restoration is prohibitive. The University has decided to sell the house in pieces to four museums. Ms. Hussey, her students and many other people are greatly disturbed by this idea and they decide to save this historic work of architecture.
This book is full of mysterious puzzles, codes and hidden treasure. Just as in Chasing Vermeer, the illustrations by Brett Helquist are full of hidden clues in a surprising pattern. Calder is fascinated with pentominoes and in this book he is playing with a three dimensional set. He finds an eerie similarity between the small structures he builds with his puzzle pieces and the shapes embedded in the Robie House. When the children hear that Wright is said to have included a secret image of himself in the house they are determined to get inside the closed building and investigate. What they uncover in the dead of night, racing up and down the open spaces filled with patterns of moonlight and shadow will ultimately affect the fate of the house and their own lives.
I think kids in grades four through six will love this book. It would be a great follow up read aloud to Chasing Vermeer, or can stand alone, especially if you and your kids are particularly interested in Frank Lloyd Wright and architecture. The puzzles, the mysterious voices coming from the house and the intensity of the character's interest in spooky coincidences, unexplained "accidental" injuries and ghostly movements of the house itself will appeal to young readers that like a touch of paranormal in their reading. It is an enjoyable book that invites critical thinking on a deeper level to those who are alert.