by Blue Balliett
Illustrated by Brett Helquist
Publisher: Scholastic Books
Genre: Children's mystery (with added woo)
Source: own book
From the back of the book ...
A MASTERPIECE ... VANISHED!
When a book of unexplainable occurrences brings Petra Andalee and Calder Pillay together, strange things start to happen: Seemingly unrelated events connect, an eccentric old woman seeks their company, and an invaluable Vermeer painting disappears. Before they know it, the tow find themselves at the center of an international art scandal, where no one – neighbors, parents, teachers – is spared from suspicion. As Petra and Calder are drawn into a mysterious labyrinth, they must rely on their intuition, problem-solving skills, and knowledge of Vermeer. Can the decipher a crime that has left even the FBI baffled?
This isn't actually the best description of story really, but it will have to do. Chasing Vermeer is commonly used in 6th grade ELA classes (the main characters are in 6th grade and are both turning twelve) - the bit about students delving deeply into language and vocabulary specific to mysteries and problem solving, making predictions, uncovering connections, and developing strategies for solving problems. Just for comparison, The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin and The Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Stewart and Carson Ellis are also recommended books. I am wondering about whether it really belongs in that company or not.
See - I am super torn here. There are some elements of the story that I really enjoyed. The
pentominoes - both as a visual puzzle and as the key for Calder's code. The fact that you had to actually solve the code to read the letters exchanged between Calder and Tommy. The puzzle hidden in the illustrations (I solved that one too). All of that was lots of fun. I love the deep investment in that and this is nice introduction to the concepts of cryptography (though that word isn't used) and visual problem solving.
|A Lady Writing|
And this is so schizophrenic! In the story Petra and Calder spent lots of their time trying to collect information in order to solve their puzzle, but instead of it becoming clear in the novel that knowledge is useful and research important, the book suddenly devotes itself to woo.
The whole amazing coincidence thing started to really get on my nerves rather early and towards the end of the book it got to the point things were becoming full scale supernatural. That, I hated. This was an excellent mystery/puzzle. You don't solve mysteries with zap feelings and chains of increasingly unbelievable coincidences! So when all of the excellent hard work and puzzle solving was dropped in favor of mysticism, I felt really let down. What the heck kind of message is the book sending?
|Yes - I read tons of stuff like this when I was a kid too,|
but you can't create a useful worldview out of it!
Ford reportedly completely misunderstood the scientific method and thought that scientific findings were just matters of opinion. Just because you personally don't understand how something works doesn't mean that nobody does. Somethings you really do have to spend a lifetime working on to really come to grips with (theoretical physics for example). Ford, on the other hand, merely seems to have inspired cult followings. I have no idea of Ford was trying to come to grips with - you can look him up in Wikipedia. Apparently...
He claimed to be an "intermediatist," one who believes nothing is real and nothing is unreal, that "all phenomena are approximations one way or the other between realness and unrealness."
Not a terribly useful worldview. It doesn't lead anywhere. To me it simply seems like Ford's mania for collecting reports of unusual events was an utterly massive waste of time and talent. If you want to actually try reading Lo! or his other books- they are here http://www.sacred-texts.com/fort/lo/index.htm
I am not sure how comfortable I am with introducing kids to his stuff, especially considering that it is basically validated by the story. I am the sort of kid who would have immediately started tracking down his work and trying to come to grips with it.
All the study guides for this book that I have found so far all kind of ignore Fort and the whole nature of reality thing - they concentrate on the art, codes and pentominoes, leaving this kind of lying there like an elephant in the room.
So - seriously conflicted because the cultural tidbits, the puzzles, the art, the codes, the adventure - all of that is really cool! But - especially the way the book resolved and the epilogue bit really undermines all of the great stuff that came before. Erk! I have real issues with presenting this in a book that is presented as a reality based mystery. If nothing else, it is cheating ! Worse then old the Butler did it or pulling a character out of thin air to be the murderer. The module is supposed to allow kids to learn the tropes and language of mystery and instead you get mysticism. Bah humbug!
Update: Just FYI I am not against fantasy or supernatural themes per say - I am against them being the primary component in a book that is being taught as a realistic mystery !