Friday, February 24, 2012

Book Reviews: The Wright 3 and Chasing Vermeer

My favorite librarian asked me to review some books for her. I love young adult fiction and have always enjoyed helping students find a great new book, author, or series. The challenge is finding the right book for that kid’s interests, reading level, and maturity. One of the books she asked me to review was The Wright 3 by Blue Balliett. Well, this is a sequel to Chasing Vermeer so of course I had to read Chasing Vermeer first. Let me just say I LOVED both books. They are engaging mysteries with interesting characters and they incorporate art in an interesting way.

Chasing Vermeer
The two main characters, Petra and Calder, are in sixth grade and they have an eccentric teacher, Ms. Hussey. An art fan turned thief steals a painting because he feels the world needs to know that some of the supposed paintings by Johannes Vermeer are fake and some are real. The fan thief declares that he won’t return the painting until the truth is revealed. Ms. Hussey’s class dives into the mystery by learning all about art, Vermeer, and his paintings. As a former teacher, I love the way Ms. Hussey conducts her classroom: with energy, excitement, and no restrictions. She has the ideal project based learning/inquiry method learning environment. They go on field trips to art museums and through the neighborhood on a whim. I want to live in her world with that much freedom for creativity and investigation. J As a reader, I enjoyed watching Petra and Calder get to know each other and themselves as they try to solve the mystery of the missing painting. (This book would actually probably pair well to be read with Patricia Polacco’s The Junkyard Wonders. Comparing the two learning environments would be a great activity for students).

The Wright 3 takes place at the end of the school year. This time there are three main characters: Petra, Calder, and Tommy. They live in Chicago near the University of Chicago. Frank Lloyd Wright’s “The Robie House,” a great piece of American architecture, is threatened. The university owns it and the house needs more repairs then the university can afford. The university plans to tear the house apart and sell it in pieces to museums. Ms. Hussey’s class feels tearing apart a great piece of architecture is murder of something priceless. They ban together to try and save the house. In the process, Petra, Calder, and Tommy form the “Wright 3” to join together each of their unique strengths to try and solve mysteries and save great architecture. Each of the three characters has a unique personality with a distinct gift that they offer to the team.  (This book would make a great character study to look at personality traits and personal gifts/strengths. I think it also could lead to some great community building activities.)

Both of these books are engaging and include great characterization. These stories would appeal to students or adults that enjoy a just good all around story, art, mysteries, or great characters. The books are mysteries without being too scary. I would recommend them for 3rd through 6th grade. The vocabulary in is not very difficult and the books are probably about 200 pages with medium sized print. While reading Chasing Vermeer, I made a lot of text-to-text connections to From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler.  From the Mixed Up Files is another great “art mystery” and a Newberry award winner, but the vocabulary is definitely more difficult. I look forward to creating some activities to go with these books, but for now I am recommending them if you are looking for a great book suggestion for a student or a fun read aloud. The books are also illustrated by Brett Helquist who illustrated the Lemony Snickett books.

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