I absolutely adore reading - my love for books has had a huge impact on my life! I'm going to grad school to be a children's/YA librarian.
When a book of unexplainable occurences brings Petra Andalee and Calder Pillay together, strange things start to happen: Seemingly unrelated events connect, an eccentric old woman seeks their company, and an invaluable Vermeer painting disappears.
Before they know it, the two find themselves at the center of an international art scandal, where no one--neighbors, parents, teachers--is spared from suspicion. As Petra and Calder are drawn clue by clue into the mysterious labyrinth, they must draw on their powers of intuition, their problem-solving skills, and their knowledge of Vermeer. Can they decipher a crime that has left even the FBI baffled? (source)
For my internship, I'll be starting a mother-daughter book club in January, so I'm starting to look into books to propose that we start with. I'm expecting that the group will mostly be 4th-6th grade girls, possibly with a few older and a few younger, so I'm looking for thoroughly middle grade reads. This is one that my sister had actually read when she was in fifth grade and I decided to give it a try.
I think that this book would be greatly enjoyed by kids (both boys and girls) who are within the targeted age group. It's a really interesting mystery that introduces readers to the artwork of Vermeer. Though I was familiar with some of the work of this artist, I had actually never heard his name before, so this was a learning experience for me. I think the fact that both of the main characters are sort of misfits would resonate with many kids and make the story all the more enjoyable, as Calder and Petra befriend each other and solve the mystery. Additionally, both of the characters are descended from multiple ethnicities, which is really refreshing to see in children's literature, which, unless it's a specifically cultural book, often has white protagonists. It was cool to see biracial characters in a book where race/culture wasn't the main focus. This is especially important in today's society, which is becoming increasingly diverse. Finally, I really liked that the book incorporated pentominoes and secret codes that the reader had to work out for themselves. This puzzle/problem solving aspect of the story was very original and I think that kids would be entertained by this, too.
One aspect of the book that I wasn't so fond of was how reliant the plot was on coincidences. So much of what Petra and Calder discover is based entirely on chance. One of them will have a gut feeling, or they'll have a dream or idea that has absolutely no concrete, factual support or basis, but their instincts are always correct. This seemed a bit too perfect for me - not realistic at all. Balliett seems to justify this by having the characters read and enjoy a book that basically argues that life is a series of coincidences and if you have a feeling about something, it'll usually be correct... but the plot took this concept a bit too far to be believable, in my opinion. And on top of all of the extremely far-fetched coincidences, it seems extraordinarily unlikely that two sixth graders would solve a mystery that has the FBI - the FBI - stumped. I think that it's important for me and other adult readers to remember that this is a children's story and often, the reader has to suspend belief with these books. However, it's worth noting that, as an adult reader, I was pretty skeptical and it made me enjoy the story less than I think I would have if Calder and Petra had acted based on concrete evidence.
Although I struggled with how incredible parts of the book were, I do think that middle grade kids would really like this story, and so I do think that I'm going to add this to my list of potential book club reads. At the very least, kids will learn about a talented and, at least in my experience, fairly unknown artist (at least in comparison with names such as Monet and Da Vinci), and they'll enjoy the puzzles and codes that are incorporated into the story. If you have any recommendations for good middle grade book club reads, please send them my way!