Chasing Vermeer

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Chasing Vermeer
Chasing Vermeer cover.jpeg
First US edition cover
Author Blue Balliett
TranslatorJohn Adams and Quincy
Cover artist Brett Helquist
CountryUSA IL Chicago
Genre Young Adult fiction
Publisher Scholastic Press
Publication date
June 1, 2004 [1]
Media typePrint (hardback & paperback)
ISBN 0-439-37294-1
OCLC 51172514
[Fic] 21
LC Class PZ7.B2128 Ch 2004
Followed by The Wright 3  

Chasing Vermeer is a 2004 children's art mystery novel written by Blue Balliett and illustrated by Brett Helquist. Set in Hyde Park, Chicago near the University of Chicago, the novel follows two children, Calder Pillay and Petra Andalee. After a famous Johannes Vermeer painting, A Lady In Writing, is stolen en route to the Art Institute of Chicago, Calder and Petra work together to try to recover it. The thief publishes many advertisements in the newspaper, explaining that he will give the painting back if the community can discover which paintings under Vermeer's name were really painted by him. This causes Petra, Calder, and the rest of Hyde Park to examine art more closely. Themes of art, chance, coincidence, deception, and problem-solving are apparent.

Childrens literature stories, books, and poems that are enjoyed by and targeted primarily towards children

Children's literature or juvenile literature includes stories, books, magazines, and poems that are enjoyed by children. Modern children's literature is classified in two different ways: genre or the intended age of the reader.

Mystery fiction genre of fiction usually involving a mysterious death or a crime to be solved

Mystery fiction is a genre of fiction usually involving a mysterious death or a crime to be solved. Often with a closed circle of suspects, each suspect is usually provided with a credible motive and a reasonable opportunity for committing the crime. The central character will often be a detective who eventually solves the mystery by logical deduction from facts presented to the reader. Sometimes mystery books are nonfictional. "Mystery fiction" can be detective stories in which the emphasis is on the puzzle or suspense element and its logical solution such as a whodunit. Mystery fiction can be contrasted with hardboiled detective stories, which focus on action and gritty realism.

Blue Balliett American childrens author

Blue Balliett is an American author, best known for her award-winning novel for children, Chasing Vermeer. She was born Elizabeth Balliett, but her family started calling her Blue shortly after her birth.


The novel was written for Balliett classroom intended to deal with real-world issues. Balliett values children's ideas and wrote the book specifically to highlight that. Chasing Vermeer has won several awards, including the Edgar and the Agatha. In 2006, the sequel entitled The Wright 3 was published, followed by The Calder Game in 2008.

The Edgar Allan Poe Awards, named after Edgar Allan Poe, are presented every year by the Mystery Writers of America, based in New York City. They honor the best in mystery fiction, non-fiction, television, film, and theater published or produced in the previous year.

Agatha Award

The Agatha Awards, named for Agatha Christie, are literary awards for mystery and crime writers who write in the cozy mystery subgenre. At an annual convention in Washington, D.C., the Agatha Awards are handed out by Malice Domestic Ltd, in six categories: Best Novel; Best First Mystery; Best Historical Novel; Best Short Story; Best Non-Fiction; Best Children's/Young Adult Mystery. Additionally, in some years the Poirot Award is presented to honor individuals other than writers who have made outstanding contributions to the mystery genre, but it is not an annual award.

<i>The Wright 3</i> book by Blue Balliett

The Wright 3 is a 2006 children's mystery novel written by Blue Balliett and illustrated by Brett Helquist. It was released in Spring 2006 and is the sequel to the children's novel Chasing Vermeer. It chronicles how Calder, Petra, and Tommy strive to save the Robie House in their neighborhood, Hyde Park, Chicago. The underlying plot elements include 3-D pentominoes, Frank Lloyd Wright, the Robie House Fibonacci numbers, The Invisible Man, and mysterious occurrences.

Inspiration and origins

Chasing Vermeer is Blue Balliett's first published book. Its original purpose was a book to read to her class for fun. [2] She realized that a mystery about "real" art issues had not been written since E.L. Konigsburg's From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler and desired to write what she wished to read. [3] Chasing Vermeer took about five years to complete, as Balliett was also a teacher and parent. [4] She compared writing the book to weaving, as she first wrote mainly about art, but then incorporated the pentominoes and classroom scenes, creating many different levels to read on. She admits that it ended up more complex than she had thought it would be. [5]

<i>From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler</i> novel by E. L. Konigsburg

From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler is a novel by E. L. Konigsburg. It was published by Atheneum in 1967, the second book published from two manuscripts the new writer had submitted to editor Jean E. Karl.

Balliett used art and blank plates as inspiration for the characters' names. Calder Pillay is derived from the artist Alexander Calder and Petra Andalee was inspired by the architecture in Petra, Jordan. [6] The names were meant to be different, which Balliett considered "fun for a child." [7] Balliett felt that she could capture the attention of reluctant readers if they related to characters who enjoyed writing and math. [8] Calder and Petra's teacher, Ms. Hussey, was inspired by an old name on Nantucket Island and the old-fashioned word hussy. [4] Balliett compares herself to Ms. Hussey, stating that "[we] think a lot alike." [4] Some of Ms. Hussey's assignments and dialogue even came from Balliett's classroom. [2] She chose the setting of Hyde Park, Chicago, where she currently lives, because she considered it full of secrets that children could discover. [9]

Alexander Calder American artist

Alexander Calder was an American sculptor who is best known for his innovative mobiles that embrace chance in their aesthetic and his monumental public sculptures. Born into a family of artists, Calder's work first gained attention in Paris in the 1920s and was soon championed by the Museum of Modern Art in New York, resulting in a retrospective exhibition in 1943. Major retrospectives were also held at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum (1964) and the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago (1974).

Hyde Park, Chicago Community area in Illinois, United States

Hyde Park is a neighborhood and community area on the South Side of Chicago, Illinois, U.S.A. It is located on the shore of Lake Michigan seven miles (11 km) south of the Chicago Loop.

Plot summary

The first illustration in the book by Brett Helquist showing the recipients of the three letters. Two frogs and the V pentomino that belong to the illustration code are hidden in the picture. ChVermeerIllustration.jpg
The first illustration in the book by Brett Helquist showing the recipients of the three letters. Two frogs and the V pentomino that belong to the illustration code are hidden in the picture.

The book begins with a mysterious letter that is delivered to three unknown recipients, two women and one man. The letter tells them they are of great need to the sender, but begs them not to tell the police.

Sixth-graders Calder Pillay, who enjoys puzzles and pentominoes, and Petra Andalee, who aspires to be a writer, are classmates at the Middle School in Hyde Park, Chicago. Their young teacher, Ms. Hussey, is very interested in art and teaches them in a creative way. Through her pressing questions, they discover the artist Johannes Vermeer and his paintings, especially A Lady Writing and The Geographer . Petra also finds a used book called Lo! , written by Charles Fort, at the local Powell's Books, owned by a man named Mr. Watch. They also meet an elderly neighbor, Mrs. Sharpe, who is also a fan of Vermeer and Fort. Calder receives letters from his best friend Tommy Segovia, who is currently living in New York City with a new stepfather.

A puzzle is a game, problem, or toy that tests a person's ingenuity or knowledge. In a puzzle, the solver is expected to put pieces together in a logical way, in order to arrive at the correct or fun solution of the puzzle. There are different genres of puzzles, such as crossword puzzles, word-search puzzles, number puzzles, relational puzzles, or logic puzzles.

Johannes Vermeer 17th-century Dutch painter

Johannes Vermeer was a Dutch Baroque Period painter who specialized in domestic interior scenes of middle-class life. He was a moderately successful provincial genre painter in his lifetime but evidently was not wealthy, leaving his wife and children in debt at his death, perhaps because he produced relatively few paintings.

<i>A Lady Writing a Letter</i> painting by Johannes Vermeer

A Lady Writing a Letter is an oil painting attributed to 17th century Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer. It is believed to have been completed around 1665. The Lady is seen to be writing a letter and has been interrupted, so gently turns her head to see what is happening. She wears twelve pearls.

The children learn that A Lady Writing was traveling from The National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. to Hyde Park. The next day there is a story in the paper of how the painting mysteriously disappeared. A letter from the thief appears in the newspaper, telling the public that he will not give back A Lady Writing until they prove which Vermeer paintings were truly painted by him. This sparks worldwide uproar. Calder and Petra investigate as their friendship grows. Mrs. Sharpe requests police protection and it is revealed that she and Ms. Hussey were two of the three recipients of the thief's letter. Calder and Petra eventually conclude that the painting is hidden in the local Delia Dell Hall, and they sneak out and find it. They barely escape from the thief, who is later found dead from a massive heart attack on the train by the police. They learn that the man is Xavier Glitts, also known as Glitter Man, who was posing as Tommy's stepfather under the name Fred Steadman. A known art thief, he was asked to steal the painting and sell it for sixty million dollars. The other recipient of the letter is revealed to be Mr. Watch.

<i>Chicago Tribune</i> major daily newspaper based in Chicago, Illinois, United States

The Chicago Tribune is a daily newspaper based in Chicago, Illinois, United States, owned by Tribune Publishing. Founded in 1847, and formerly self-styled as the "World's Greatest Newspaper", it remains the most-read daily newspaper of the Chicago metropolitan area and the Great Lakes region. It is the eighth-largest newspaper in the United States by circulation.


As stated in the preface, there is a code hidden in the illustrations throughout the book. This was the idea of Brett Helquist and Balliett's editor, Tracy Mack. [10] The code involves images of pentominoes and frogs, which are recurring themes throughout the book. To understand the code, one must count the number of frogs in every other illustration and find the hidden pentomino. The pentominoes and the quantity of frogs in the illustrations correspond to letter-number combinations in the code that Calder and Tommy use to write their letters throughout the book. For example, the first code sequence included in an illustration is represented by a hidden pentomino corresponding to the letter V, and two frogs. This means that the code sequence is V:2, referring to the letter T in Calder and Tommy's decoding key. When the entire message hidden in the book is decoded, it spells out "The Lady Lives".


Chasing Vermeer is classified in the mystery genre, although it was described by Liz Szabla of Scholastic as "a puzzle, wrapped in a mystery, disguised as an adventure, and delivered as a work of art." [3] Scholastic's teaching website additionally added suspense due to the surprise ending. [11]


Some of Balliett's "real-world ideas" in Chasing Vermeer were "Do coincidences mean anything?" and "What is art and what makes it valuable?" [12] Balliett says her "central message" is "kids are powerful thinkers, and their ideas are valuable, and that adults don't have all the answers." [13]

A book by Rita Soltan entitled Reading Raps: A Book Club Guide for Librarians, Kids, and Families analyzed Chasing Vermeer's themes as follows:

Deception and problem solving are central themes in this novel as both the thief and the central adult players use a variety of ways to hide the truth while the children employ a series of mathematical and problem-solving concepts to piece together the clues to the puzzle. In addition, Calder and Petra develop a special friendship and certain respect for the value of art. [14]

As the thief gains publicity by challenging the community to figure out which paintings claimed to be Vermeer's were indeed painted by him, everyone starts to look at the depth in art. Sondra Eklund, who writes a book review blog, noted that the reader was left with the impression to study Vermeer's paintings and art more closely. [15] In the book, Ms. Hussey challenges her class to the question, "What is art?"

Other themes include chance and coincidence. [16] During Chasing Vermeer, Charles Fort's book, Lo!, inspires the children to list and pay attention to coincidences as they realize that they are more than what they seem [15] and explore the concept that they make up one unexplained pattern. [17] Balliett stated that she wanted to convey how coincidences were noticeable and felt meaningful, and how they could matter even if they were unexplainable. [4]


The audiobook for Chasing Vermeer, read by Ellen Reilly, was released on November 27, 2007 from Listening Library. [18] It runs about 4 hours and 47 minutes. AudioFile magazine praised Reilly's voices and pace, but noted that, "Once the mystery is solved, however, the ending seems tacked on, falling flat." [19]

Critical reception

Chasing Vermeer received generally positive reviews. The New York Times praised the description and mystery. [20] It was also listed as one of their "Notable Books of 2004". [21] Kirkus Reviews awarded it a starred review with the consensus that "Art, intrigue, and plenty of twists and turns make this art mystery a great read." [22] Children's Literature reviewer Claudia Mills gave generally positive comments, calling the novel "engrossing and engaging". [17] The website Kidsreads well-loved children's books. It's that good." [16] A reviewer of The Trades website called it "an entertaining read that manages to serve several purposes in one concise novel" and found the characters "unusual yet likable", but felt that "the disappointing bit of this novel is that the solutions always arrive through a series of disconnected events that just lead the kids to think in certain ways." [23] Kadon Enterprises, a game puzzle company, reviewed the book, praising the writing style and puzzles. [24]


Chicago Tribune Prize for Young Adult fiction2004Won [25]
Great Lakes Book Award for Children's Chapter Book2004Won [26]
Borders Original Voices Award2004Nominated [27]
2005 Book Sense Book of the Year Award for children's literature2005Won [28]
Edgar Award for Best Juvenile mystery novel2005Won [29]
Agatha Award for Best Children's/Young Adult Novel2005Won [30]
Indian Paintbrush Book Award 2006Nominated [31]


Warner Brothers bought the rights to a film of Chasing Vermeer in June 2004 [32] and Brad Pitt's production company Plan B Entertainment planned to produce it. [13] P.J. Hogan was slated as director [33] and the novel was adapted by Matt Nix. [34] However, when asked about the film in August 2010, Balliett answered,

"It’s been fascinating, watching this whole process, because Plan B did a wonderful job. They went through two screenwriters, and they’ve gone through two directors. It’s sort of like a house of cards. I have rights again. If they get it all together again, they’ll jump on it. But they don’t have exclusive rights anymore." [35]

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