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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.
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VINE VOICEon June 25, 2004
This may not be The Da Vinci Code for kids, because it seems that the scholarship and research in Chasing Vermeer are more accurate than that in The Da Vinci Code. However, it?s a clever marketing technique, and it seems to be working.
Having read The Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew, The Boxcar Children, and all sorts of ?simpler? mystery novels as a child, this really was refreshing. I wish something like this had been around (or that I had known of it) when I was in 6th grade. Even for an adult, it?s an interesting, provocative work, with excellent pacing and sure handed writing. And any book that increases interest in art, thinking, or ideas has automatically hit a home run for me.
Aside from the terrific storytelling and infectious plotting, I was very intrigued by the two main characters. Both are ?hybrids? ? a far cry from the typical Caucasian heroes we see everyday. Bravo to the author for the varied ethnicity!
It?s also a pleasure to read a book written ?in? Chicago. Too many novels take place in New York, or L.A., and believe me ? Chicago is culturally rich enough to support many more stories of this nature.
The hidden clues were fun to figure out. I?ve never had much of a brain for puzzles, so even one aimed at kids between the ages of 9 and 12 challenged me. It took me a while to puzzle the clues out, and when I did, I discovered that there isn?t only one solution! There are two, equally valid solutions ? the one on the website, and the one I found. And yes, there really are two ? even though I don?t possess a proclivity for this sort of thing.
I?m already anxiously awaiting Ms. Balliett?s next book. As she is a teacher in the Hyde Park area of Chicago (which is as rich and culturally diverse as it gets here), I hope to see even more of this magnificent city!
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on April 19, 2005
I was initially very excited to read this book. The packaging and illustration were incredible, and the idea for the book was awesome. I love young adult literature, and mysteries, and was hopeful that I could read this out loud to my students. Upon reading the book, I was thoroughly disappointed. The plot had way too many holes, and left the reader having to question why things were happening the way they were. The method for solving the crime was way too far fetched, and supernatural. This book could have been a lot better if it had many more details included, if the different sub-plots could be meshed together in a better way, and also if you put a completely different author on it. One who can actually write an engaging story. So, the statement holds true here, "Don't judge a book by it's cover." I judged this book by it's cover, and was completely disappointed, and $20 in the hole.
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon July 6, 2011
I had high hopes for this book, supposedly a wonderful example of creative problem solving.
Well, sometimes a book is well written, sometimes not. Sometimes it has a satisfying plot or well drawn characters, sometimes not. But, it is rare to find a book that seems to be affirmatively bad for you. Well, this one is.
What kind of book presents a mystery, and then offers that the way to a solution is through hunches, dream communications, coincidence, and silly random solutions to silly random puzzles? Why is this so cute, clever and creative?
Take the pentominos. They are like Tetris pieces and can be used to play number games. But, arrange them randomly to form things that look sort of like letters, then use the letters to guess at the words for a clue? What is that? It's bad cutesy writing; it's bad cutesy science; it's bad cutesy reasoning. It's lazy and phony.
Supposedly, the point of the book is to get children to think creatively. It seems to me that in this context "to think" should be "to reason" or to rely on evidence and to engage in critical thinking. But, the message really is to wing it, to follow hunches, to rely on luck, and to be saved ultimately by silly coincidences, numerology, and by the far-fetched and improbable. I don't think I really want to suggest to a young reader that "creative" and "flaky" are the same thing.
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on May 26, 2010
This is one of the worst books I have ever read. Seriously. It is ostensibly a mystery, but the adolescent sleuths don't use any form of reasoning or follow any logical framework for solving the problem before them. When the author needs the kids to know something, she just tosses it at them in a dream or a "feeling." Because the characters don't actually need to do any problem solving, they end up being wooden mouthpieces for the author's convoluted, ill-thought-out plot. This book is truly awful. And the reviews comparing it to THE WESTING GAME are as far off base as they can be.
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on September 15, 2004
Here's some applause for an intelligent, art-centered kid's mystery studded with some sharp writing and magnificent illustrations that are works of art all on their own. Now for the dose of reality in the midst of all the hype: the story doesn't hold up. Things begin to crumble halfway through when (don't worry, I'm not going to give away any specifics plot points) the mystery's solution begins to be uncovered via some very flimsy "feelings" and coincidences. That's something of a betrayal to a setup that was, until that point, so clean and logical. I was so charmed by Petra and Calder that I would happily read another book about them. In fact, next time around, I'd like to learn a little more about the two of them.
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on February 7, 2015
I read this book for a book club and at first I didn’t like it. It took a long time to get into it and then by the time you did you had to stop. It had a slow beginning. In the end I did like this but. It really makes you think about all of the small things that relate and make you really think if there is a reason for all of them. It was very unpredictable I like how there are so many things and you can’t figure out which ones really mean anything and how some are just there to be there. All in all I liked the ending the most.
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on March 9, 2005
This is a book you should not judge by its cover. It is beautifully published, with an embossed dust jacket, a textured linen lining, and pages so smooth and heavy you just want to hold it for its tactile qualities. The illustrations are also artfully done and appear throughout the book; something not so common in a book for young adult readers. My good review, however, ends here. After seeing the cover art and reading the "hook" passage on the back, I bought the book, but by the time I read several chapters, I wished I had just waited and gotten it from the library. I slogged through chapter after chapter, hoping that it would just be a late bloomer and pick up partway through. It did increase in suspense toward the end, but then the characters seem to turn the story over to the author, who gives a whole analysis of everything that happened and why. This should have been built into the story; it reminded me of the ending of Scooby-Doo. (If it weren't for you kids...!)

I read a lot of young adult books, as a writer and a teacher, and this book is a lesson in how NOT to write a mystery. I can't understand why the publisher put such an illustrator and such lovely materials into the publishing of this book. I'd bet they're just trying to cash in on The DaVinci Code craze. This story was disappointing at best.
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on November 30, 2012
Have you ever read a book where you start yelling at the characters? Normally, when I do that, it's to blurt out, "Don't do that!" or "Look under there!" or something similar. While reading "Chasing Vermeer", it was more along the lines of "You have to be kidding me!" and "Ridiculous!"

Things I liked:
* The main characters are biracial. That was definitely different.
* The red herrings were well written. In the end they just go to show that your imagination can get away from you and guess what, not everything is about you. Other people have their own lives as well.
* The book tries to instill an appreciation of art.

None of the above, however, can make up for its primary shortcoming, which is, it's supposed to be a MYSTERY. People solve mysteries based on clues and evidence, not hunches and feelings and wild guesses. Calder pulls out pentominoes and the shape makes him think of a word that turns out to be helpful in solving the mystery. He either has some psychic powers or he happens to be the luckiest kid in the world. What would have happened if he had pulled out the "I" piece and thought of Iceland?? And the emphasis on coincidences and numerology are too ridiculously unbelievable. Like I said, I just got so annoyed reading it that I yelled at the book.

I read the book because my daughter is doing a book report on it and I want to make sure she understands it. It will take a lot of willpower to keep my criticisms to myself until after she's done.
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on August 11, 2004
This book has two main problems. The first is that there are way too many coincidences. The second is the unbelievable ending. The fun part about reading a mystery is trying to collect the clues and figure it out. But too many of the clues are coincidences and no one will see the ending coming. The explanation is pretty preposterous. The illustrations are a puzzle as well, but doesn't help with the story and is basically just a gimmick. I liked that the story was set in Chicago and the two main characters were likeable as well, but as a mystery, it is very badly plotted. There is all that build up and then a big let down at the end. It's somewhat worth reading, but if you're looking for a good mystery, you'll be left unsatisfied and empty.
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