Monday, July 14, 2014

Chasing Vermeer by Blue Balliett

Chasing Vermeer 
by Blue Balliett
Illustrated by Brett Helquist

Publisher:  Scholastic Books

Format: Paperback  
Copyright: 2004
Pages: 254

Genre: Children's mystery (with added woo)
Source: own book

From the back of the book ...

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
The art history stuff was also interesting, but I think there could have been a bit more. Not an info dump - they talked about reading about Vermeer, but very little was actually discussed - the mostly talked about the lack of information about Vermeer's life. However, it should be enough to get some students interested in learning more. That is good. And the Art Institute of Chicago is defiantly awesome, though I was rather offended by Petra's take on some of the paintings.

The Geographer
On the down side - I absolutely abhor this trendy idea 'common sense' is better than actual knowledge, that experts don't know anything and that there is something wrong with working hard to gain understanding in a field of research, be it science, art history or literature. It just makes me want to scream.  Petra's wishing they would would spend more time learning about things that people don't know about and stop having to learn 'stuff everyone already knows' (sorry I can't find the exact quote - but she muses in this vein several times) - ARGH! Because without spending time trying to understand things that 'people know about' and learning from the past you have no context to tell what is important, what isn't important or even what really is new. You have no basis for serious judgements. I see this same attitude in many of my college students - their almost unshakable attitude that their evaluation of an issue is equally as valid as everyone else's even though it is often based on a total lack of knowledge - and the idea that they can get away without having to spend time gathering a basic knowledge framework to test ideas with.

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!
The Charles Fort stuff (he is real, sigh) starting out kind of interesting but as the woo started taking over it annoyed me more and more.  Yes we should all pay attention to the things around us, try to turn concepts on their head to see if we can learn something new, and we should spend more time actually thinking about things. That is good, but then when we get into "Depending on how you looked at things, your world could change completely" stuff - I start to say Whoa!  The value of pi does not change to 3 just because you change your perspective, you can't decided that certain historic events didn't happen just because you don't like the implications, and gravity doesn't become optional on Tuesdays for you if you 'enlighten' your mind. People can and do take this stuff way too far - like that women who insisted that she could live just off of light - (psst - lady, you are not a plant!). 

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...
Charles Fort, ca. 1920 
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

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 !

No comments:

Post a Comment

Hi! I do read all of the comments and want to let you know that I really appreciate your stopping by and taking the time to leave a note. Work has fallen in on me and I have not had enough time to reply coherently lately so I apologize preemptively but still want to assure you that your comments are valued. I am using comment moderation to avoid using more annoying spam avoidance. Thanks for your patience.