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'Chasing Vermeer' by Blue Balliett

Monday, June 13, 2005 6:02 PM

Ages 10 and up.

As this amazing, puzzling book opens, a cryptic letter about a centuries-old crime is delivered to three people. The letter promises fortune if they help solve one of the great art crimes in history, but threatens their lives if they tell anyone about it. The letter is unsigned, but in a weird way none of the recipients is surprised to get the note.

"Chasing Vermeer" is like a kids version of the popular adults' book "The DaVinci Code." It involves secret messages in great works of art, intrigue that takes the young sleuths Petra Andalee and Calder Pillay to exciting places (including Washington) and lots of opportunities for the reader to try to solve the mystery along the way. This is one of those books where once you've read the first chapter you'll be hooked.

Petra (a girl) and Calder (a boy) are classmates in Chicago. Petra loves to write and Calder hates to, preferring to figure out complex math puzzles involving pentominoes, five-piece domino-like setups used by mathematicians. If you can crack the pentomino code in this book, you'll go a long way toward solving the mystery.

The illustrations by Brett Helquist are as helpful in solving the mystery as is Blue Balliett's riveting writing. (If Helquist's name sounds familiar, you must be a Lemony Snicket fan. Helquist also illustrates the "Unfortunate Events" books.) Be sure to study the illustrations for clues.

The title refers to 17th century Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer and one of his most famous paintings, "A Lady Writing." When you've finished this book, visit the National Gallery of Art on the Mall and see the painting for yourself.

-- Tracy Grant

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