About the Book
The mystery begins when three people who live in Chicago receive the same, strange letter. They are invited to help solve a century-old crime. The author of the letter threatens each reader if he or she shows it to the authorities. A short time later, a very famous painting, A Lady Writing, vanishes while being transported from a museum in Washington, D.C., to Chicago. There are questions to be answered, who took the Vermeer painting and where did they hide it? Working against time are two young sleuths, Calder and Petra, who find out their very different strengths, complement each other and help to solve this mystery. The clues woven throughout the book come together to make exciting reading and a surprise ending!
Set the Stage
Get students ready to read by showing the front cover and discussing some of these items:
- Talk about the picture on the front of the book. Ask the students to think about what genre they feel the story is by looking at the picture.
- Open the book and read the first pages in the book together. Notice the saying by Charles Fort, the map of the area the story takes place, and then read about the pentominoes and about this story pages.
- Have the students discuss ways that pentominoes would be important to the story. Then read on about the artwork challenge.
After reading the book, discuss the following with the class:
- Calder always carried pentominoes in his pocket. Why did he do this?
- Ms. Hussey was an extraordinary teacher. What made her extraordinary to Calder and Petra?
- In many of the illustrations, there is a picture of a frog. Why did the illustrator include this animal in his pictures?
- How did Mrs. Sharpe help Calder and Petra?
- How did Ms. Hussey help Calder and Petra?
Have students complete the Break the Pentamino Code! Student Activity Sheet. Students will use a pentomino code to decipher a message and then make up a secret code of their own.
To extend students enjoyment of the book, try these:
- Works of Art: Ask the students to research Vermeer or another famous painter of his time and prepare a report and presentation for the class. (Rembrandt lived during Vermeers life and was another Dutch painter). After the presentations, challenge the students to find out which of the artists work they consider the most famous. They should be able to support their reasons. They can also compare and contrast the artists with a partner. Students can show this by using a Venn diagram or a double bubble map (Thinking Maps). Display their findings around the room.
- Exploring Pentominoes: Calder used pentominoes to help him think. Polyominoes is the general name of plane shapes made by joining squares together. Pentominoes (5 squares) are the type of polyomino most worked with. Have students visit Webs ites or other resources available that allow children to manipulate pentominoes to make squares and rectangles. You can also buy pre-made pentominoes or make them yourself – students will love the challenge of fitting them together to make new shapes!
- Communication is Key: In the book, Ms. Hussey did not disappoint the children in her class. She announced on the first day of school that she really didnt know what the class would study this year; it all depended on what everyone was interested in. She wanted them to learn to think and believed that the students would learn more if they worked on relevant projects. She assigned the students to ask an adult about a truly extraordinary letter he or she had received. Communication plays a large part in this story. Have the students begin a journal. After each reading, the students should summarize and make predictions. This will help the children keep track of what has happened so far and help to make sense of all the clues given along the way. They can write this in a letter format to you, the teacher.
- Take a Trip: Visit a local art museum. Before going, talk about the different types of paintings that the class may see. (Abstract, stills, landscapes, etc.) During your visit, allow students time to study the paintings by a particular artist. When the class arrives back at school, have students write in their journal which painting they liked best, and the least and why. They could write about one piece in particular, that made them feel a certain way or reminded them of something else. (If a trip to your local museum is not an option for your class, you can find many pictures on the Internet or your local library that students can study).
- Mystery Timeline: Petra and Calder are two very different people. They have different family lives and personalities but their differences seem to work for them to help solve the mystery. Working in cooperative groups, the students can make a timeline to help them piece together the events in the story that led to the mystery being solved.