Balliet, B. (2005). Chasing Vermeer. New York: Scholastic
Ages: 9-14 years
Genre: Realistic Fiction (Mystery)
Chasing Vermeer is a mystery that is solved by paying attention to the little coincidences in we all experience in everyday life, which is also the theme of the story. The characters are realistic everyday people that come together to form an engaging, action-filled plot that uncovers a missing part of history and a public appreciation for art. The book, published by Scholastic, includes puzzles and little side mysteries for the reader to use his or her own sleuthing strategies to figure out and decode secret messages. In addition, there is a resource page available, featuring a teacher’s guide and activities associated with the story. This web page can be found at http://www.scholastic.com/blueballiett/.
This story fits within the descriptors of realistic fiction through the characters and plot. The main characters, “Petra” and “Calder” are 11 years old children. They attend school, have siblings, parents that work at the University of Chicago and live in an actual suburb of Chicago, Hyde Park. The plot takes the form of situational realism by being a mystery about a famous piece of art that is stolen. The art is an actual portrait entitled A LADY WRITING, 1665 by Johannes Vermeer. I use the term situational realism because our world does include art thieves; in fact the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) estimates that about six billion dollars of art is stolen each year (PBS, 2007). Additionally, the story takes place in a neighborhood that surrounds the University of Chicago and many young adult readers could easily identify with the sixth grade main characters.
However, being able to identify with the main characters is just one reason why this novel is engaging for young adults. The novel includes many suspense sequences such as, “Petra had to do it. Propping the shovel against the tree, she began to climb. One foot, one hand, next foot, other hand… Petra counted as she climbed. As she grabbed the twelfth board, she tried to steady the pounding in her throat.” Moreover, there are hidden pictures within the illustrations that equate to a hidden message given throughout the book. Plus, puzzles in the form of pentominoes, which is a math tool that consists of twelve pieces that are used to explore geometry and numbers. The pentominoes are also used by Calder and Petra in the story to figure out little challenges and next steps in their detective work. The answers to these side puzzles in the story can be found at the book’s website listed in the summary of this blog. I, for one, always studied the realistic illustrations just to find the hidden pictures and clues. Yet, another side puzzle included in the story were coded messages between Calder and his friend Tommy. One had to use the pentominoes key to decode these letters, which is another story activity that I thoroughly enjoyed, as seen in my post-it notes in the picture to the right. Young adult readers and older readers would be engaged by all of these story attributes. In fact, I particularly enjoyed these activities because they added to the mystery story line and allowed me to interact with the story. A feature not usually included in mysteries written for older adult readers. Still, my BIG question has to do with the occurrence of the number “12” in this story. The use of the number “12” was persistent throughout the story; the number was even used to solve the mystery. My question is why “12”? Is it because of the pentominoes and their base of 12? Or is this an actual part of the painting, A LADY WRITING as suggested in the story?
I can also see this novel used as a read aloud for instructional purposes because of the obvious math, social studies and critical thinking connections made in the text. The math connections could be based on pentominoes puzzles, developing geometric shapes using translations (slides), reflections (flips) and rotations (turns). The social studies connection could be presented through the history of specific art pieces and famous art heists. Furthermore, Ms. Hussey the sixth grade teacher in the story encourages students to practice independent critical thinking. This critical thinking could take the form of predicting how Petra and Calder solve the mystery, figuring out the use of “12” and its relevance to the story, discussing how the art thief used writing to transform how an entire culture looked at art and artistic features in every tangible items or finding other common mysteries in their lives that could be solved by focusing on little coincidences that occur. Students could even study the use of elements of prose included in the story.
The elements of prose utilized in this story, make it unique. Specifically, how the author tells the story and how the story is organized. The story is told from a third-person-omniscient perspective, meaning that the story is told by a narrator that also has a view into the main characters’ thoughts. An example would be, “At that moment, there were just the three of them in the world: the Lady, who was almost 350 years old, and the two children, who were almost twelve.” This perspective made the story unique because not only did the author allow the reader to peer into the thoughts of the characters, she also described content related concepts (like the pentominoes) to fold in many layers of clues in this mystery. This is the kind of book that I want to re-read just to find the clues and foreshadows that I missed the first time I read. One foreshadow, or clue that I neglected and realized when re-reading to prepare this blog was that the steps to the tree house included at the end of the story had twelve boards in the ladder. The author even stated that Petra counted the boards to make sure she was headed in the right direction and I totally missed it the first time! Even though, one of my thoughts while reading was, how did Petra know where to go? I also found the organization of the story to be unique in the paragraphs and transitions. The novel included 24 named chapters; however within the chapters the author organized the text in not just paragraphs, yet also by story events. The author separated each new story event with three X’s. An example would be “The third key turned easily. Pulling open the basement door, she clicked on the switch and slipped inside. /XXX ‘Calder! Calder!’ she whispered at the foot of the stairs.” I believe that the author did this to alert the reader that something new was about to happen. When I first began reading the book, I thought this use of X’s was strange. Yet, I began to rely on them to understand all of the action in the story. The X’s began to alert me to read carefully. I would even make a text-to-dramatic theatre connection, in that these X’s seemed to alert a scene change in the story, as scenes in a play signal a new occurrence in the story, so do the X’s. I felt that this organizational feature helped me understand the action and even organize the sequence of events, which is important in reflecting on the clues that were used to solve the mystery.
Frankly, I love mysteries, which is one reason that I chose this story. Still, I found this mystery even more enjoyable than others I have read because of all of the interactive features. Between the suspense, critical thinking math and art history connections I was constantly thinking about what I missed and where I needed to go to find the answers to my questions while I was reading. Most importantly, I had fun reading this story. I believe that any young adult reader would also enjoy the plot, puzzles, hidden messages and hidden pictures in the illustrations as I did. I can envision using this as a read aloud even with younger students and then discussing the clues. I believe this book could even serve as a classroom community builder as the students work together to solve the mystery using the clues that Petra and Calder discovered. Not to mention the many content connections that I discussed earlier in this blog. As, I move into the next school year I am seriously considering using this piece of literature in my instruction, and to just develop a love a reading with my students.
Comprehension Strategy of the Week:
I heavily used the “post-it” strategy with the “active reading symbols” to remember all of the details of this mystery. Two examples, also seen in the pictures below, would be using the plus sign (new information) to note events of foreshadowing and the letter “A” (I agree) when the author included a list of the coincidences that Calder and Petra had noticed up until that point in the story. The specific event of foreshadowing started me thinking about the painter Vermeer and prompted me to do a little research of my own on this painter to understand his plight in the story, nobody knowing him or his life details until 100 years after his death. The particular list that I noted with an “A” was an organizational feature that assisted me in remembering all of the coincidences that had occurred and alerted me to the strong theme of the story being little coincidences in life that we all sometimes miss. This comprehension strategy perfectly fit with reading a mystery.
|Plus Sign to denote "new information"|
|The letter "A" to denote "I agree" with the use of a list to organize the ideas.|
PBS. (2007). Independent Lens: A film festival in your living room. Retrieved June 15, 2012 from http://www.pbs.org/independentlens/stolen/index.html.