Chasing Vermeer
By Blue Balliett
Illustrated by Brett Helquist
Scholastic, 2005

Chasing Vermeer is a children's mystery novel with a tinge of fantasy, and a good dose of factual.

Petra Andalee and Calder Pillay are fairly normal middle schoolers, although perhaps a bit bookish and quiet... and smart. They like to play with pentominoes and read Charles Fort and just generally find interesting parts of the world that others have overlooked.

Their interests turn out to be unusually useful when an art thief steals a valuable Vermeer, and blackmails the art world -- help him correct the historical misattribution of many of Vermeer's works, or the painting gets it. Petra and Calder happen to be at the right spot at the right time with the right skills... maybe.

The children are helped along by a series of pseudo-magical events -- Petra dreams of the girl from Girl with a Pearl Earring, who nudges her in the right direction, and Calder gets 'hints' from his pentominoes. The plot also involves some very unlikely coincidences, which would normally put the reader off, but may be acceptable in light of the Fortean spirit of the book.

One oft-touted feature of the book are the illustrations, done by Brett Helquist; aside from being quite nice illustrations, they hide a coded message that the reader is invited to try to solve. Unfortunately, these illustrations are not among Helquist's best works -- he is known for his humorous, horrific, and surreal illustrations, and Chasing Vermeer is rather more mundane than his usual subject matter.

It is worth noting that the author has added in a number of unusual opportunities for the reader to engage in the story -- Calder communicates with his best friend through encoded notes, and while the key is given, Balliett does not translate them, leaving that to those motivated to do so. Likewise, the reader is invited to make and play with their own set of pentominoes, inspect Vermeer's work on their own (plates of The Geographer and Lady Writing a Letter are included), and some of the puzzles presented are above what the average reader might want to bother with -- but are present for those who do.

Overall, this is a well-written and engaging book, and one that makes an effort to increase kids exposure to interesting bits of the world. I wasn't thrilled that some of the interesting bits were basically superstition, fate, and magical thinking, but at the same time, these aspects did make the story better. And I'm not the only one who thinks it's good -- it's won a handfull of awards, including the Edgar Award for Best Juvenile mystery novel and the Agatha Award for Best Children's/Young Adult mystery Novel.

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