In my house, a new Blue Balliett book inspires a rousing chorus (or perhaps I should say a noisy duet), of “Oh goody!” I was one of many, many fans of Blue’s first book, Chasing Vermeer, and I was nearly as pleased by her second, The Wright III. So no reasonable person could possibly have expected me to wait for the paperback, like a good, money-saving girl. I bought it. I read it. I liked it. Now I will write about it.
Petra and Calder are at it again, up to some serious, art-infused detective work, and this time, Calder’s buddy Tommy is along for the ride. It all starts when the kids go to an exhibition of Alexander Calder’s work at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago. In spite of every effort on the part of their uninspired, sort of nasty teacher to make this experience as dull as possible, the children, especially Calder, are struck by Alexander Calder’s miraculous mobiles. I guess you could say that Calder catches “mobile-mania.” He starts playing “The Calder Game” – coming up with sets of 5 connected words / ideas / images that hang together in the way a mobile would. Soon after, Calder gets the chance to go to England, to visit the maze gardens of Blenheim Palace in Woodstock and when he arrives he finds Calder the artist there to meet him, in the form of a bold red sculpture in the centre of the town square. The sculpture, The Minotaur, has been given to the town as a gift, and not everyone thinks it belongs in the ancient village. The townsfolk don’t need to put up with it for long, however, since one night the sculpture vanishes, and so does Calder. Petra and Tommy end up in Woodstock to help in the search for their friend and to unravel the mystery of the missing Minotaur.
Balliett is doing her usual thing here, bringing art and suspense and kids altogether into a delightful, complicated mix, and it makes me happy. While I was reading this book, I was a shade disappointed that there wasn’t a lot of direct interaction between Petra, Calder and Tommy since the bulk of the story is about Calder’s disappearance, and Tommy and Petra are often separate in their search for their friend. Then it struck me that the way in which the 3 major characters are apart in the story, and yet interconnected in the way that their actions influence each other, is really like one of Alexander Calder’s mobiles. Pieces hang apart, and yet together create an idea, or a whole, or a story. This is clever. I do wonder how many younger readers get these playful observations that Balliett makes through her stories about art and relationships between people. I hope some do.
With this question in mind, I don’t think this is a book for every kid. What Balliett is good at is creating a rich, half under-the-surface exploration of how art, philosophy, logic and people intersect. This book will really appeal to a certain sort of child – a kid who likes to look for connections, who spends time thinking about questions, who is a problem solver – a kid like Petra or Calder, I suppose. This is not a book that will be right for a quick read, or for one of those moods when you just want something to entertain and keep you hooked page after page. It bears thinking about and should be read when in an introspective frame of mind. In Balliett’s first two books, there were sections of each story that felt quite slow to me, when I had to force myself to push on until the pace quickened again. I found the same thing in The Calder Game. There are slow bits, but I think that there are so many ideas dangling above and around the central plot, that you can ponder some of the novel’s larger themes when the action slows. From reading other kidlitosphere reviewers’ perspectives on Balliett’s books, I’m getting the feeling that you either dig it, or you don’t. I am in the former group. Even though each one of Balliett’s titles stands alone, you will appreciate the work more if you read the stories in sequence. It helps you to see what Balliett is all about.
And we musn’t forget one final gush about Brett Helquist’s wonderful, perfect, eerily atmospheric illustrations. Gotta love them. Keep ’em coming Brett.