Book Review: Chasing Vermeer

by Blue Balliett
Published by Scholastic Press, New York, 2004

Reviewed by Kate Jones

I was amazed and delighted to hear of this book, which features our favorite plaything, pentominoes, as a major part of the plot line. Not since Arthur C. Clarke introduced pentominoes to the world through his science fiction novel, Imperial Earth, have these 12 entrancing shapes featured in fictional literature, though they've had plenty of coverage in recreational mathematics writings.

Chasing Vermeer by Blue Balliett is allegedly a children's mystery novel, but I think it will intrigue all readers. Its plot structure is superbly crafted to integrate the diverse elements and characters, like a puzzle with many pieces to be fitted together. It could hold its own against the masters of intrigue such as Doyle and Christie.

And woven throughout are subtle, almost incidental remarks that carry profound ideas of how people should regard each other, and how schools and teachers should nurture children's minds. Blue Balliett was a teacher herself, and in one sense this book is an anthem to great teaching. Ideas about of learning... are all instilled with a light touch and an understanding heart. Many a reader will be inspired to read up on Vermeer and to ponder the connection between art and truth, between science and the surreal.

The book hides a secondary puzzle within itself, beyond the unfolding events of the story. It conceals a message the reader can try to solve, buried in the wonderful illustrations by Brett Helquist. Can you find the secret code?

The biggest surprise in reading this book is discovering how really well this lady writes. The descriptions, the dialogues, the thoughts and observations of the characters are done with an admirable sparseness of words, a flawless sense of atmosphere. Many times I found myself rereading a passage, savoring the language, the turn of phrase, the exact right choice of words.

The story itself concerns an art theft, a priceless painting by Vermeer, and how two sixth-graders, Calder and Petra, team up to solve the mystery against all odds. Calder's prize possession is a set of pentominoes that he keeps in his pocket and which provide clues. Petra is a multi-cultural girl with a quick and logical mind, with occasional flashes of almost scary insight. This unlikely pair of shy heroes are thoroughly endearing, and I wonder which child actors Warner Bros. will find to play them in the planned motion picture.

It needs to be said that Kadon and its products have no connection whatsoever with the books and their publisher, nor to Warner Bros. and their prospective film. We're just happy to see the concept of pentominoes given such an affectionate and respectful reception in the popular media.

The publisher, Scholastic Press, has a charming webpage for Chasing Vermeer with little interactive areas where you can play puzzle challenges with the 12 pieces. And you can order the book from them. Just type the title into their search box.

Blue Balliett's second book, The Wright 3, featuring our young heroes and the pentominoes is a mystery novel concerning Frank Lloyd Wright, also from Scholastic. Here's our review.

Blue's third book, The Calder Game, also from Scholastic, takes place in a remote village in England, complete with hedge mazes, spooky graveyards, and an Alexander Calder sculpture. Here's our review.

For her extraordinary contributions to popularizing pentominoes, Kadon was pleased to present to Blue Balliett the 2006 Gamepuzzles Annual Pentomino Excellence award.

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