Sometimes there’s nothing better than curling up with a good mystery, right? When I was young, one of my favorites was E. L. Konigsburg’s From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. I think of it almost every time I see Michelangelo’s name in print or look at one of his works. I picked up Mixed-Up Files again recently and was totally surprised to see a copyright date of 1967; almost 40 years ago! It never felt dated or old-fashioned to me, and I hope it still holds up with today’s readers. That discovery set me on a path of wondering if any contemporary authors were writing the same type of book these days; a mystery with a bit of adventure and lots of knowledge about art and culture thrown in. One of the authors I was glad to discover is Blue Balliett. I don’t know how to categorize her books other than to say they are smart, creative art mysteries. They weave poetry, fine art, math problems, and all sorts of other knowledge and beauty into the story, and it almost never feels forced or out of place. Balliett is probably best known for her trio of books about friends Petra, Calder, and Tommy and their sleuthing skills around their Hyde Park neighborhood in Chicago. I recently read a few Balliett books, and ohmygoodness they are just jam-packed with good references. Here’s just a partial list of some of the artists/school topics/teachable moments/famous personages in Chasing Vermeer, The Wright 3, The Calder Game, and Hold Fast:
Frank Lloyd Wright
H.G. Wells and The Invisible Man
Letter substitution codes
Pentominoes (math tool)
Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window
The question “What is art?”
Art Institute of Chicago
Chicago Public Library
Rhyme/meter in poetry
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland
Isn’t that cool? I love that these books provide a neat entryway into all sorts of other topics; they can draw readers who are interested in the suspense, or those who like Dutch painters or famous architects. They also struck me as a great opportunity for inter-disciplinary learning; combining reading The Wright 3 with learning about angles in math class, for instance. My mom was telling me about an art teacher friend who has started pairing a book with each medium she is having her students work with; ceramic teacups when they are studying fairytales and reading Beauty and the Beast, for instance. I love art that invites me to make connections across genres and mediums; it’s a reminder that so many things include wonder and beauty in them, even those that I’m not naturally drawn to.
I can’t say enough about Balliett’s writing, as well. Here’s an excerpt from Hold Fast that brought a huge smile to my face.
Dashel Pearl offered words to his kids from the day they were born. A man who loved language almost as much as color or taste or air, he explained to his daughter, Early, that words are everywhere and for everyone.
“They’re for choosing, admiring, keeping, giving. They are treasures of inestimable value,” Early heard him say many times. Even when she didn’t know what inestimable meant, she understood it from the careful way he said it.
Dashel played a game with Early and Jubie. It began like this: he would throw his arms out and yell, “Words are free and plentiful!”
From the time they learned to talk, one or other other would shout back, “Free! Plentiful!”
Each time Dashel sat down to read aloud, book in hand, he’d look sideways and whisper, “Words are…”
One or both of the kids would whisper back the next three words, finishing a sentence that then opened the story. Three words with ee and if inside them, Early thought, sounds that could fly: syllables that became wings with feathers and bones, weightless and yet sharp.
Have you read any other Balliett titles? What did you think of them? Any other great mysteries to recommend, or other books that open doorways to learning?
Featured image by Paul Boekell.