Posted by: Lizzie Ross | November 11, 2011

Ars gratia artis

Chasing Vermeer (2004), Blue Balliett, 254 pp. (+ two sequels)

A Lady Writing, c 1665

Anything with “Vermeer” in the title gets my attention. I’ve been a huge fan since my teens, and it’s thrilling to live in a city that holds several of his works.

I spotted this book in DC’s Union Station Barnes & Noble, and got it as well as the 2 sequels. It was only later that I figured out the author is the daughter of the late Whitney Balliett, one-time jazz critic for The New Yorker. Cool!

Robie House, 1910

Anyway, Blue Balliett is on a mission. This series is all about art — how it can change lives, how it has to be part of everyone’s schooling, how it appeals to people in so many different ways. In the three books, she covers painting, architecture, and sculpture.

Canine, c 1956

But I may be giving the wrong impression here. These aren’t academic books arguing to save arts education. Each book features pre-teens solving a mystery, but also negotiating their way through an often confusing world. In Chasing Vermeer, we meet Petra and Calder, sixth-graders who find themselves thrown together in search of a missing painting. Their individual skills combine well. Petra loves words, writes constantly, and notices things around her. Calder plays with pentominoes, thinks with numbers, and loves patterns. He invents a pentomino code for communicating with his best friend, Tommy (currently out of town, but soon to return). Will these two be able to rescue the painting before it’s too late?

In the second and third books, Tommy joins the group, but the balance is off. He’s Calder’s best friend, jealous of Petra, and therefore snide and distrustful. Petra can’t stand his attitude, and Calder chafes at being in the middle. It takes a real threat, in the third book, to solidify this trio. Can they cooperate enough to save Wright’s Robie House from destruction in book two and to locate a missing Calder (both a sculpture and their friend) in book three?

Well, of course they do.

PS: The illustrator, Brett Helquist, does a wonderful job representing the characters AND the art in these books.

PPS: Lo!, by Charles Fort, plays a huge role in Chasing Vermeer. Watch for a future post on this weird and wonderful writer.

PPPS: Calder would love that this post is dated 11/11/11!

Sequels: The Wright 3 (2006), and The Calder Game (2008)


  1. Love the name Calder. Oh, why, oh, why didn’t I have a son and name him Calder! Oh, timing. Thank you for sharing.

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