Article, Book Resources

What Makes Chasing Vermeer So Special?

Book Focus: May 2004

By Liz Szabla
  • Grades: 3–5

What was your first impression upon reading Chasing Vermeer?
I remember when I first read E.L. Konigsburg's From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, how quickly I became entranced by the book's world of art, intrigue, and survival. When we discovered Blue Balliett's bewitching first novel, Chasing Vermeer, we knew we had found a novel that was equally captivating, and which would have a wide appeal to readers of all ages.

How would you describe what it's about?
Chasing Vermeer has been called "The Da Vinci Code for children". It's a puzzle, wrapped in a mystery, disguised as an adventure, and delivered as a work of art. Filled with letters to decode and mysteries to solve, it contains a secret message, artfully hidden in Brett Helquist's mesmerizing chapter illustrations. When a book of unexplainable occurrences brings Petra Andalee and Calder Pillay together, strange things start to happen: seemingly unrelated events connect, an eccentric old woman seeks their company, and an invaluable Vermeer painting disappears. Before they know it, the two find themselves at the center of an international art scandal, where no one is spared from suspicion. As Petra and Calder are drawn clue by clue into a mysterious labyrinth, they must call on their powers of intuition, their skills at problem solving, and their knowledge of Vermeer. Can they decipher a crime that has left even the F.B.I. baffled?

What else is special about the book?
The book has mesmerizing illustrations by Brett Helquist, the illustrator of the Lemony Snicket books, with whom we have previously worked on a picture book for Scholastic Press, Milly and the Macy's Parade by Shana Corey. Not only that, but there's a secret message hidden in the illustrations! Are you ready to test your detective skills? Are you ready for a reading experience like no other?

What sort of reactions has the book been getting so far?
Everyone we know who's read this book has loved it! In the April 1, 2004 issue of Booklist it received a starred review saying, "The Westing Game, The Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler — how exciting to find a book that conjures up these innovative, well-loved titles. That's exactly what Balliett does in her debut novel which mixes mystery, puzzles, possibilities, and art. Helquist, who has illustrated the Lemony Snicket books, outdoes himself here," And you should read the full-page "Story Behind the Story" about this book, in the May 1, 2004 issue of Booklist.

In Chicago, where the book is set, there is tremendous enthusiasm among booksellers and librarians. We sent the book to the Chicago Public Library, and Andrew Medlar, their Youth Materials Specialist, reported: "I have to tell you that Vermeer has been making the rounds of our office and we all think it's fantastic!!" They have now scheduled three appearances for Blue in various libraries around the city, and she will be doing many more appearances and interviews, so stay tuned.

Who is Blue Balliett, and how did she come to write this book?
Blue Balliett was born and raised in New York City and loved to stop at the Metropolitan Museum of Art or the Frick Museum on her way home from school. She's always loved museums, mysteries, and hearing about things that can't be explained in the usual ways. After studying art history at Brown University, she lived in Nantucket, where she got married. When her kids started school the family moved to Chicago, and Blue began teaching 3rd grade at the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools.

Let me continue the story in Blue's own words. "One year my class and I decided to figure out what art was about. We asked many questions, visited many museums in the city, and set off a number of alarms — by mistake, of course. At this time I realized, in looking for appropriate fiction to read aloud at school, that not since E. L. Konigsburg's The Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler had an exciting mystery revolving around "real" art issues been written. So I set out to write what I wanted to read. In writing Chasing Vermeer, I also wanted to explore the ways in which kids perceive connections between supposedly unrelated events and situations, connections that grownups often miss. Kids have a way of rearranging the familiar. Given the opportunity, kids can ask questions that help them to think their way through tough problems that adults haven't been able to figure out — problems like the theft of a Vermeer painting!"

  • Subjects:
    Arts and Creativity