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The Calder Game

Review

The Calder Game

written by Blue Balliett, illustrated by Brett Helquist

Blue Balliett's innovative novels featuring University of Chicago Lab School students Calder Pillay, Petra Andalee and Tommy Segovia have been widely praised for their portrayal of creative problem-solving, enthusiastic discussion of art and intriguing character dynamics. Although I awaited the latest installment, THE CALDER GAME, with as much enthusiasm as Balliett's many fans, I also hoped that perhaps this third entry in the series would have a more finely hewn mystery plot than its predecessors. As mystery novels go, CHASING VERMEER and THE WRIGHT 3 relied a little too much, in my reading, on coincidence, questionable clues and quasi-supernatural "evidence" to advance the mystery plot. Would THE CALDER GAME deliver for readers wanting a good mystery as well as a satisfying story? Yes, indeed.

Calder, Petra and Tommy's seventh grade school year is off to a very unsatisfactory start. Not only did they have to move on from their beloved, unconventional, free-thinking sixth-grade teacher Miss Hussey, their seventh-grade teacher, the rules-oriented Miss Button, seems set on quashing creativity. And creativity is what these three friends value most --- Calder solves math problems and cracks codes, Petra thinks about language in unusual ways, and Tommy finds peculiar objects that often have larger significance.

Then Calder breaks the news that he will be leaving Chicago's Hyde Park neighborhood for a couple of weeks, accompanying his father to a conference near Oxford, England. Tommy and Petra are horrified. Calder, their best friend, is the glue that holds the often-feuding Petra and Tommy together. With Calder temporarily out of the picture, will their bickering develop into all-out war?

Before Calder leaves, however, the kids head to Chicago's Museum of Contemporary Art to see the world's largest exhibition of works by mobile and sculpture artist Alexander Calder, Calder Pillay's namesake. Despite Miss Button's strictness, Tommy, Petra and especially Calder are inspired by the breathtaking exhibit, particularly by the invitation to play the "Calder Game" and design their own unconventional "mobile" of five interconnected ideas or objects.

Calder's arrival in England coincides with the arrival of another Calder --- a large sculpture called "The Minotaur," placed in the town square of tiny Woodstock by an anonymous donor. The tradition-bound villagers are suspicious of the sculpture, and of Calder, who seems to make enemies just by asking simple questions. So when both the sculpture and the boy disappear on the same night, Calder's distraught father calls in Tommy and Petra to see if they can zero in on connections that he and the police are missing. In order to find their friend, can Petra and Tommy overcome their differences and disagreements and make an effective detective team?

Like its predecessors, THE CALDER GAME utilizes real information about art, artists and places (in this case, the Cotswolds' Blenheim Palace and its famous maze) to get readers excited about learning. It also shows how kids, each of whom has his or her unique way of thinking and problem-solving, can work together to make connections and find patterns. Unlike the previous two books, however, THE CALDER GAME relies more solidly on evidence, clues and deductive reasoning to arrive at its conclusion --- resulting in a novel that will satisfy mystery fans as well as art lovers.

THE CALDER GAME is Blue Balliett's best work of fiction yet, and readers will be eager to see how this series continues to develop over time.

Reviewed by Norah Piehl on May 1, 2008

The Calder Game
written by Blue Balliett, illustrated by Brett Helquist

  • Publication Date: May 1, 2008
  • Hardcover: 400 pages
  • Publisher: Scholastic Press
  • ISBN-10: 0439852072
  • ISBN-13: 9780439852074