The Da Vinci Code with Good Writing

By Julia Bucci / November / December 2004
June 14th, 2007

Chasing Vermeer byBlue Balliett ’78, illustrated by Brett Helquist (Scholastic).

Nearly thirty years ago, as an undergraduate studying art history, Blue Balliett pulled an obscure book from the Rockefeller Library’s discard pile. Titled Lo!, the quirky treatise argues that all coincidences can be traced to large yet unnoticed truths. Balliett took the principle to heart, weaving her coincidental discovery into Chasing Vermeer, a mystery she wrote for her third-grade students at the University of Chicago Laboratory School.

Chasing Vermeer’s success has been phenomenal. Chased by five publishers before Scholastic bought it, the novel is now being translated into thirteen languages. Warner Brothers has snatched up the movie rights. The book made the New York Times best-seller list for children and was hailed as “The Da Vinci Code for tweens,” by Newsweek. Reviewing Chasing Vermeer for the New York Times, Meg Wolitzer ’78 improved on that praise, calling it “The Da Vinci Code with good writing.”

In a recent phone interview, Balliett described her lingering shock at the success of a manuscript she wrote when and where she could—on her laptop in the laundry room on Saturday mornings and on bits of paper she shoved into her jacket pocket as she ran out the door. Her inspiration was simple: she couldn’t find enough good art novels for her students, once they’d finished E.L. Konigsburg’s classic From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler.The year she started writing, she says, her class was “traipsing all over Chicago” figuring out what art was; they set off three alarms in the Art Institute in one field trip alone (they were investigating chairs). That exuberance worked its way into the novel. “Writing Chasing Vermeer,” she says, “was such a joy because I got to put into it everything I believe as a teacher.” She hopes the book  will provide children with a respite from such pressures as standardized testing, which she describes as “so sad.”

Chasing Vermeer revisits the centuries-old mystique surrounding the questionable authenticity of some of the Dutch painter’s work. It is a puzzle within a puzzle, a passionate argument for the fluid brilliance of children’s thinking, and a touching story of a friendship between a boy who suspects he’s odd and a girl who thinks she’s shaped like a lima bean. A refreshing alternative to much of the current mind-numbing wizard and cheerleader fare served up to middle-school students, the novel follows Petra and Calder, two self-described hybrid kids (their families, like many in their college neighborhood, are racially mixed). Sixth graders at the Lab School, the two  begin tracking resemblances among seemingly disparate events around them: mysterious letters, the enigmatic habits of a neighbor, a painting stolen en route to Chicago.

“Listen to your own thinking,” their teacher, Ms. Hussey (who bears a suspicious resemblance to Balliett herself), tells them. To locate the stolen painting, they piece together clues from their study of art, as well as intuitions Calder gleans from his pentominoes (plastic mathematical tools) and images from Petra’s dreams. Along the way, they dodge a dangerous criminal as well as a mean and unimaginative classmate. Balliett set the book in her own Chicago neighborhood, Hyde Park, which she describes as “a quiet area, with giant ideas and tons of books, coffee, and maybe a little bit of food.”

She says her dozen years of teaching have taught her that kids “are wonderful critical thinkers—with the right support.” They think best, she believes, when faced with real-world situations and open-ended questions to figure out. “Kids—all kids,” she insists, “come alive and awake when you give them a question that doesn’t have an easy answer. They need a reason to learn, to be gathering information. I think people forget that kids need those reasons.”

A sequel to Chasing Vermeer is already on her editor’s desk, scheduled for publication in fall 2005. The new book, Balliett hints, will be a little scarier, and will weave together the architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright, an H.G. Wells novel, and Hitchcock’s Rear Window.

Having quit her teaching job, Balliett says she is now “floating around, thinking and reading strange things,” and relishing the luxury of being “single-minded.” For the first time, at almost age fifty, she notes with gratitude, she can focus on writing full-time instead of having to keep “turning off the faucet.”

Julia Bucci writes and teaches English at Moses Brown School in Providence.

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November / December 2004