"Chasing Vermeer," "How Hedley Hopkins Did a Dare"

“Chasing Vermeer,” Blue Ballietta, Chicken House; 2005; 272 pp.

Blue Ballietta’s debut novel, “Chasing Vermeer” has been called a ” ‘Da Vinci Code’ for tweens” and with good reason.

“Chasing Vermeer” isn’t your typical whodunit about an art heist. True, a famous painting, “A Lady Writing,” by the 17th-century Dutch artist Johannes Vermeer is stolen, and sixth-graders Calder Pillay and Petra Andalee get to play detective, figuring out where the Vermeer is while the befuddled adults around them don’t even know where to start looking. But there’s a secret at the heart of this art theft: Vermeer didn’t actually paint all the paintings that are attributed to him. Some of them are fakes, but the art community is too craven and money-minded to bring the truth to light, alleges the thief in a letter published in The Chicago Tribune.

Study Vermeer’s paintings, the letter exhorts readers, and decide what is a true Vermeer and what is not. Then force the art establishment to admit its mistake and correct it.

It all starts with Ms. Hussey’s class. “The letter is dead,” says Petra and Calder’s favorite teacher. Is it? When the class starts investigating if this quaint form of correspondence has become obsolete, their search for an answer leads them to examine art and how letters figure in paintings.

Petra and Calder couldn’t be more different: Petra loves words while Calder loves numbers. But their love for Ms. Hussey’s class brings them together. Meanwhile, Vermeer’s famous painting goes missing and the thief’s message to the public proves that the letter is certainly alive. Before they know it, Calder and Petra are in the middle of an art scandal — if they don’t move fast enough, “A Lady Writing” will never be seen again.

If anything is missing in this classic mystery novel (besides Vermeer’s painting, that is), it’s the reasoning process that usually leads detectives to the truth. Petra and Calder don’t actually work out a solution. Instead, the female subject of the painting “A Lady Writing” speaks to Petra in her dreams. Calder’s pentominoes — 12 mathematical puzzles made up of five squares that share at least one side — spell out a message about what he should do next.

The book itself is structured like pentominoes with the disparate pieces falling together at the end. Brett Helquist’s mood-evoking chapter illustrations also hold a hidden message related to the pentomino code in the book. (If you can’t decipher it, the answer can be found online.)

There couldn’t be a more interesting way for a children’s author to introduce her readers not just to Vermeer, but also to art itself. After all, art, like mysteries, is about the exercise of looking.

Note: For children 12 years and up.

“How Hedley Hopkins Did a Dare,” Paul Jennings, Puffin; 2005; 202 pp.

The actual title of this book is 42 words long: “How Hedley Hopkins Did a Dare, Robbed a Grave, Made a New Friend Who Might Not Really Have Been There at All, and While He Was at It Committed a Terrible Sin Which Everyone Was Doing Even Though He Didn’t Know It.”

OK, that’s your entire story right there, but that won’t stop you from reading the book, right? That’s what author Jennings banks upon in this hugely funny book about a misfit of a boy called Hedley (a rather thinly disguised fictional version of Jennings himself). Hedley wants to fit in but it’s hard being a British boy growing up in Australia and even harder when your nickname is “Headless Hopkins.”

So when a bunch of cool kids dare him to raid a grave in the sand dunes, he decides to do a little grave robbing, only to bump into a group of “loonies” from the “Loony Bin.”

Hedley is scared of too many things: not being accepted; being haunted by the skull lying in the sand dunes; and being attacked by the mentally challenged children from the Billabong Home for Retarded Boys. And as if encounters with the dead and the mentally challenged aren’t enough to scare the daylights out of him, he then has to attend an embarrassing church meeting about the Facts of Life with his father! To top it all off, the innocent question he contributes is read aloud to the entire congregation: “How much pee do you put in?”

Between picturing images of naked women and coping with the embarrassment in front of father, Hedley must find some way to return the skull to its burial place.

Jennings gives us an unabashed look at life from the viewpoint of a young boy, all the while taking potshots at narrow-minded people who brand the mentally challenged as loonies, or think that children should know as little about sex as possible.

This is a hilarious novel about growing up from an author who — wonderfully so — hasn’t quite grown up himself.

Coronavirus banner