The Calder Game is the third in Blue Balliett’s series about some eccentric Chicago middle school kids who solve mysteries using an idiosyncratic belief in coincidence and their own curiosity. Chasing Vermeer was the first book to introduce Petra who has a magical relationship with language and Calder who keeps a pocketful of pentominoes and is a mathier kid. Together they made a formidable, if sometimes perplexing team. A great fascination of book one was the puzzle around the Vermeer paintings and it led to perusal of the Vermeers in our own museum across the park—a delightful follow-up to an engaging book.
In The Calder Game, the third member of the trio, Calder’s friend Tommy who was introduced in book two (haven’t read it) gets his ink. I don’t find him a very compelling character—in fact, he is anything but appealing. Picks his nose, for one thing, and is too easily ruffled. But his presence does take some of the action away from Petra to her detriment. She seems a less strong character in this episode and that is a loss.
The story begins as Calder takes a trip to Oxford with his father, after a disastrous class excursion to the Chicago Museum of Contemporary Art to see an ambitious Calder retrospective. Calder, who was named after the artist, lugs his pocketful of pentominoes with him and is stunned to find a giant Calder sculpture installed in the medieval town square in the small village outside of Oxford where he and his dad are staying. Dad takes off for a conference at the university, leaving Calder to sightsee on his own and things pretty much go downhill from there.
A village full of suspicious characters resents the sudden appearance of a sculpture no one wants, ominous looks and coincidences shadow Calder’s tourism, nearby Blenheim Palace has a legendary maze that hides ugly secrets and ancient landscaping that might be deadly, a fat cat shows up rather often at auspicious moments. Then the Calder sculpture and Calder himself disappear. You need a powerful willing suspension of disbelief to puzzle through the rest of the story. Petra, Tommy and a neighbor are flown over from Chicago to help in the search for Calder. The neighbor has thoughtfully procured some sort of Chicago official police detective IDs for them so they can ignore police lines and sleuth at will. They come and go day and night without much supervision. Calder’s father and the neighbor believe the children will solve the mystery of the disappearances.
There’s a lot of adventure and the kids do act independently. The resolution of the various riddles—and crimes—is tricky to guess at because it doesn’t/can’t make sense until the explanations at the end. A bright boy like Calder doesn’t know that a cave with an entrance and cracks in the rocks isn’t a sealed oxygen-free chamber. Americans are boors and bad guys before they are heroes and okay after all. It’s very puzzly—a hallmark of these books—and it was entertaining. But the illogical bits were very distracting and I wish they were more seamlessly incorporated. Nice to learn about an artist, a math tool that looks like a toy, a few museums and botanical gardens. But Chasing Vermeer was a better book—Calder and Petra were a tough team together. Add the nose-picking Tommy and, not so much.
The Calder Game Blue Balliett | Scholastic 2008