Monday, February 3, 2014

Chasing Vermeer, by Blue Balliet

Title:  Chasing Vermeer
Author:  Blue Balliet
Publisher:  Scholastic
Year: 2004
Pages:  254
Genre:  Realistic Fiction/Magical Realism
Themes:  Fitting In, Coincidences, Art, Friendship
Age Range:  3rd-6th Grade

Summary:  from Goodreads
Balliett's book follows young Petra Andalee and Calder Pillay as they piece together separate, seemingly disconnected events to locate The Lady Writing, a Vermeer painting that gets stolen en route to Chicago's Art Institute. Going on the theory that there are no coincidences, the two wonder about the link between their teacher's statements, Petra's dreams, a book Petra finds in the library, and other clues that set the reader guessing as to their significance as well. But after they learn of the culprit's aim to correct untruths about Vermeer's life and art -- which spurs them into full-throttle detective work -- the pieces all come together in a brilliant ending sure to make readers cheer, "Ah ha!"

If you are a fan of The Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E Frankweiler, but are looking to use more recent books in your classroom, then Chasing Vermeer should be right up your alley.  This mystery for the elementary school set is full of intriguing coincidences, art history, and enough clues to make teaching inferring a pleasure rather than a chore.

The main characters, Petra and Calder, are both oddballs in their 6th grade class.  They go to the University of Chicago Lab School, a place where teachers are encouraged to "teach outside the box", and their teacher, Mrs. Hussey, certainly takes that philosophy to heart.  Rather than use a prescribed curriculum, Mrs. Hussey allows the interests of the children and the questions they have about the world to drive her instruction.  As a teacher, tht sounds like heaven, especially in these days of test, assess, and test again!  This type of learning really appeals to Petra and Calder, and definitely prepares them for the mysterious circumstances in which they find themselves.

One of the delights of this book for me, other than really smart characters and an emphasis on art, which I love, is the setting.  The book takes place in the Hyde Park neighborhood of Chicago, an area of the city I know really well.  It is where the University of Chicago is, and as such is an interesting blend of diverse people from all over the world-students, professors, and local Chicagoans alike.  One of the most important places in the story is Powell's Books, which is one of my very faorite bookstores in the world!  There are many references made to locales around 57th Street, including parks and restaurants that I could instantly picture when they were mentioned in the story.  Of course, if you aren't a Chicago native, you can still appreciate the way Balliet describes the beautiful buildings on the U of C campus, and can probably feel the raw cold of late fall/early winter in Chicago. 

Aside from the mystery of the missing painting, which ends up having a fairly mundane explanation, there is an element of magical realism in the story.  There are just too many coincidences for them to actually be coincidences, but what (supernatural?) power may be at work behind the scenes is a mystery.   In addition, both Petra and Calder have what can only be described as visions-Petra in dreams (both waking and sleeping), and Calder in the random (or is it?) appearance of certain number patterns and shapes.  There's lots of fodder for discussion here, and the opportunity to make a curricular connection with art by studying the paintings of Johannes Vermeer, a real Dutch artist from the 17th century.

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