Mystery at the museum
Blue Balliett's beguiling tale makes children think twice about art
Eight-year-olds should not be underestimated. Just ask author Blue Balliett, who says children of that age "have tremendous brain power and are not bound by convention." In fact, Balliett says she couldn't have written her new novel, Chasing Vermeer, without having taught for a decade at the University of Chicago's Laboratory School. "I learned so much by being able to watch so many different kinds of brains every year," she says.
In Chasing Vermeer—a multilayered story about art and learning, coincidence and mystery—protagonists Petra Andalee and Calder Pillay serve as "a vote of confidence for kids' brain power, at a time when not much credence is given [in the education field] to kids' thinking and imagination . . . everything is quite formulaic these days." Balliett has created an intriguing fictional world where patterns and coincidences deserve a second look, and happenstance can hold great meaning. Petra and Calder, two inquisitive, imaginative sixth-graders, join forces to track down the thief who has stolen a valuable Vermeer painting no small task, especially when mysterious letters appear in mailboxes up and down the street of their neighborhood, the neighbors are acting cagey, and their beloved teacher, Ms. Hussey, has become a bit twitchy. The case soon becomes a national scandal, but the two children explore the Hyde Park area of Chicago and learn more about Vermeer as their determination to rescue the painting grows.
The book's masterfully detailed, richly colored illustrations by Brett Helquist (of Lemony Snicket fame) add to the story's appeal by offering more than mere representation of the book's events (keep an eye out for clues to a secret message!). The pictures each of which is an oil painting are not only lovely to look at, but accurate as well. "[Helquist] visited Hyde Park in order to make the illustrations true to their environment," Balliett notes, and while there, he studied everything from buildings to gargoyles to an ornately carved staircase. Balliett says writing the book was "like weaving. I did a string based on art, wove across that with the pentominoes [mathematical tools], and added in the classroom scenes. I wanted people to read the book on different levels. It [ended up being] more complex than I thought it would be." And, she adds, "Kids are such natural pattern-makers; they can live with gray areas better than adults can." Matters of perspective and imagination fascinate Balliett, and both are important elements of Chasing Vermeer, as is art, of course a topic that has interested the author since childhood. She grew up in Manhattan, "an easy walk from the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Frick Collection, at a time when kids could wander in and out without paying big fees." It was then that she became familiar with Vermeer and his work, which, she says, offers a "sense of immediacy, of peering into a private relaxed world. It appeals to all kinds of people."
Balliett never liked "being told what to think" about art, whether on a museum tour or as a student in a classroom. To engage her own students at the Lab School, "I used to make scavenger hunts. We set off three different alarms on one trip to the Art Institute of Chicago." Aside from irritating the security guards, such exercises were intended to get the children to really think about art. "Kids are good critical thinkers, if you let them do it." This conviction drove Balliett to write Chasing Vermeer. "There's been nothing since The Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler that exposed kids to real art issues," she says. "I was looking for a way kids can feel comfortable thinking about real art, and the real questions art historians live with."
Readers who find themselves energized by the twists and turns, the puzzles and problems, presented in Chasing Vermeer will be pleased to learn that Petra and Calder will return in Balliett's next book. It will be "set in Hyde Park, with ghosts in it," and Helquist will do the artwork. In the meantime, though, Balliett will be visiting bookstores and schools, and attending a luncheon in honor of Chasing Vermeer at the Art Institute of Chicago. Will the security guards be ready for her?
Linda M. Castellitto wrote a paper about Vermeer for a college class. She got an A-minus.