Top critical review
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Doesn't meet expectations
on August 24, 2004
Announcements of Blue Balliet¡Çs adolescent mystery ¡ÈChasing Vermeer¡É recently appeared in our Chicago papers. The articles that I read boasted the use of pentominoes to solve a mystery that takes place in Chicago. As a middle school science teacher, I was immediately intrigued. I am always looking for books that foster good problem solving techniques through creative and engaging methods. I dove into the book enthusiastically and was very impressed with the craft with which Ms. Balliett developed her characters; clearly she is a person who enjoys adolescents. I was also captivated by the setting, I spend a lot of time at the University of Chicago campus and Ms. Balliett envelopes the reader in the aura created by the breath-taking architecture and intellectual energy unique to the Hyde Park area. The illustrations by Brett Helquist are wonderful, they add warmth and a sense of mystery as the reader looks for clues within the artwork (even though the clues are disappointing in their simplicity). And so, as I went along on the journey with Petra and Calder, I was drawn into their dilemma and was decoding messages and looking for clues, thinking that this was a very interactive puzzle.
However, as the solution of the problem began coming together, I was horrified at the methods taken to form the conclusion. I will not give away the ending, but there are two main clues which resolve the issue. The first one is obtained through a dreamlike transmission of information from the dead woman in the painting, a form of ¡Èchanneling¡É. While paintings can convey emotions and cultural atmosphere, they cannot convey specific information about their location within a building! The second clue comes through using the pentominoes, not as a mathematical tool, but linguistically as shapes that roughly resemble letters of the alphabet. The reader is introduced to a willy-nilly word jumble that results in a clue. This is like using a protractor to make a peanut butter & jelly sandwich; it is possible but why waste a perfectly good mathematical tool in this way? The resulting clue was not created in the same manner that it is deciphered by the children, so there isn¡Çt even a cause and effect relationship in the problem-solving. None of the clues are based on solid evidence, I feel that this is very misguided and a lost opportunity to teach critical thinking. Throughout the second half of the book, readers are encouraged to look for coincidences and to give any connections the weight of solid evidence. There are confusing statements such as ¡Èthe sixth grade class¡Ästudied the idea of coincidence. Was it, as a number of interested scientists believed, just the human fascination with patterns? Or was it something more?¡É So, instead of an introduction to the field of mathematics called probability where the likelihood of an event occurring individually or simultaneously with another event can be quantified, the adolescent is encouraged to believe in some supernatural intervention. I was shocked that a fellow educator would model this fallacy in reasoning. Another passage sounds like a throwback to numerology, ¡ÈCalder discovered more twelves. First he made a list¡ÄThere were twelve names, and twelve letters in each name. ¡Äthe message ¡Æ1212¡Ç also has twelve letters if you spell it out, and so does the name of the painting.¡É Superstition also abounds, ¡ÈHe felt that things were often connected in ways that no one could yet explain in scientific terms. But if none of this was coincidence, what was it?¡É
I am glad that our wonderful city and the U of C campus is featured in a book for young people and I think that Ms. Balliet did a good job piquing the interest of adolescents in art history. But, this book claims to give us insight into how children process information, and there it falls apart. The author should put forth a little more effort in developing the clues so that there is some attempt to foster true critical thinking based on analysis of real data. We need to have more respect for the intellectual capabilities of our students.