by Blue Balliett, illustrated by Brett Helquist. Scholastic Press, 2004. I read this book in the last few weeks of summer vacation, after having it recommended by several students and teacher friends. I was looking forward to it and it lived up to all the anticipation. The main characters, Calder and Petra, are two sixth graders living in Chicago and attending the University School in Hyde Park. The school was begun by John Dewey, who "believed in doing, in working on relevant projects in order to learn how to think", as the author describes him.
Their teacher is named Ms. Hussey, and she stands tall with all the other Cool Teachers of Children's Literature in A Year of Reading's List. She is introduced thus: "It was a strange thing for a teacher to say. By the sixth week of sixth grade, Ms. Hussey still wasn't a disappointment. She had announced on the first day of school that she had no idea what they were going to work on that year, or how. "It all depends on what we get interested in – or what gets interested in us," she had added, as if this was obvious. Calder Pillay was all ears. He had never heard a teacher admit that she didn't know what she was doing. Even better, she was excited about it."
Calder and Petra live on the same street a few blocks from school, but they haven't been friends up until now. They are a bit awkward with each other at first but eventually discover that they are similar and complimentary in their individual strangeness. Petra is a bookish girl who wants to be a famous published writer and Calder is a boy who loves puzzles and carries a set of pentominoes in his pocket at all times. They are both described as "hybrid kids", meaning their parents come from different ethnicities and cultures. Calder's dad is from India and his mom is Canadian and Caucasian. Petra is a "club sandwich of cultures". Her father has relatives from North Africa and northern Europe and her mother is from the Middle East. She has a bunch of little brothers and sisters, making her home a "tornado where life swirled in noisy circles." The story is not about their ethnicities but it is nice to see it mentioned as part of their normal family life.
The story revolves around Petra and Calder's preoccupation with the artist Vermeer. Calder has a wooden box with a painting titled The Geographer on the top of it and Petra dreams of the lady in the painting A Lady Writing a Letter. Ms. Hussey is assigning homework around the theme of investigating "communication" in letters and in art. The two kids keep stumbling across coincidences that bring them back to Vermeer's work. When the Lady painting gets stolen in transit from the National Gallery in Washington D.C. to the Chicago Institute of Art they become intent on finding the painting and solving the mystery.
As well as information about art, artists, mathematical patterns, puzzle solving, and codes, the author frequently refers to language arts skills. Petra finds an intriguing book in a second hand shop and she struggles to comprehend what she is reading. Her reading strategies are identified and explained in a natural way in the course of her seeking to enjoy her book. The author quotes a confusing passage from the book Petra is reading and says, "Petra read this twice and turned a few pages. [more confusing quotes from her book] Petra struggled with this language and had to look up the words "credulity" and "premises." Rereading each sentence in pieces, she began to get a grip on what Fort was saying…" Petra pauses to think over the implications of what she is reading, comes up with questions of her own in response to the text, and then turns to her notebook to write out her thoughts. Her reading spurs her thinking, inspires her writing, and leads her into conversations with her friends, parents and teachers that come together in the solving of the mystery. It is a language art's teachers dream to see such a beautiful example of an active reader making meaning from the text and using reading and writing to investigate the world, build relationships and bring together a wide range of thoughts and experiences. It is lovely to see how Balliet has created such a fascinating story with living characters that exemplify vibrant learners.
What I like most about the book is the way the characters are drawn. They have strong personalities with quirks and talents that set them apart. They are kind and genuine, with insecurities, fears and wishes that are expressed in their friendship. Art and literacy are deftly woven into the story of solving an enticing mystery. The author has sprinkled clues throughout the book in codes and hints, which alert readers will be collecting and sifting. The illustrator has joined the game by hiding hints in some of the frequent drawings scattered throughout the book. I was not as interested in decoding the secret messages sent between Calder and his other friend Tommy but I got caught up in searching for the clues hidden in the illustrations. I think kids who are intrigued by mysteries will love this book and those who are looking for personable characters struggling with the familiar developmental issues of preteens will be drawn into the story as well. The book is beautifully crafted and a pleasure to read. I think it would make an excellent read aloud for a fourth or fifth grade classroom. There is another book with the same characters solving an equally interesting mystery, called Wright 3, which I will review next. Blue Balliett's books are highly recommended.