Review: The Calder Game, by Blue Balliett


Two Calders are missing. One is a sculpture. One is a boy.

When Calder Pillay travels with his father in a remote village in England, he finds a mix of mazes and mystery … including an unexpected Alexander Calder sculpture in the town square. Calder is strangely drawn to the sculpture, while other people have less-than-friendly feelings toward it. Both the boy and the sculpture seem to be out of place … and then, n the same night, they disappear!

Calder’s friends Petra and Tommy must fly to England to help his father find him. But this mystery has more twists and turns than a Calder mobile caught in a fierce wind … with more at stake than first meets the eye.

Ms. Bookish’s Quick Take: The Calder Game is book 3 in the art mystery series by Blue Balliett. And now that I’ve read it, I’d have to say it’s the best of the three. Which is quite something, because I thought both Chasing Vermeer, and The Wright 3 were very good books. The Calder Game does require that you suspend your credibility a bit when it comes to getting Petra and Tommy from Chicago to Woodstock, England, but once you get beyond that, it is a wonderfully written novel that will inspire any creative, talented child (which means, all children, really) to look at the world a little bit differently. And as with the other two books in the series, Brett Helquist’s illustrations are a perfect accompaniment to the story.

The Full Review of The Calder Game

Calder, Petra and Tommy are back again in The Calder Game, another mystery involving a famous artist – this time, it’s Alexander Calder and his beautiful mobiles and statues. The three find themselves separated near the beginning of the book when Calder goes to England with his father, who is attending a horticultural conference near Woodstock, home of Blenheim Castle.

One thing on my mind at the start of the book was how the author would manage to get Petra and Tommy across the ocean from Chicago to England. It does require rather more suspension of belief than normal, and is really the only “flaw” in the book. When Calder goes missing, Mrs. Sharpe arranges to bring both Petra and Tommy with her to England to help look for Calder; it did strike me as odd that there was no objection from the part of the parents to this arrangement. But this is a small point, and doesn’t take away from the rest of the book at all.

Which, in a nutshell, is really wonderful. As with her previous books, Balliett illustrates concepts and ideas beautifully with her writing; for example, in the following passage in an early chapter where the three children visit an exhibit of Alexander Calder’s mobiles with their classmates, Petra, the word lover in the group, comes to her own personal understanding of his art:

Petra forgot the frustration of not being allowed to write, and thought instead about pulling sentences apart and balancing words in three dimensions, as if they could float off a page. Words as things, not just meanings … words in space, words set free! Could it be done? Petra’s mind felt as if it were exploding with possibilities.

Helquist’s illustrations add to the mood of the story, and this time around, I found myself involved in the happenings in The Calder Game in a way that I wasn’t in the two previous novels. After all, there is so much more at stake. Calder is missing.

The plot line is absorbing and intricate, and as with each of her previous books, Balliett introduces many concepts involving art, math and literature. We learn the myth of the Minotaur, that half-man, half-bull who ate humans. We learn more about pentominoes, Calder’s particular love, and explore the meaning of patterns of five. We see how words can go beyond our senses:

Black, black, black went a drip someplace to his right. He’d never realized how much the word fit what it sounded like: the flatness, the no-color, of dark water on dark stone. Black, black, black

The change in the initially prickly relationship between Petra and Tommy is handled well and realistically, based as it is on their mutual feelings for Calder. Unless they can overcome their differences, they don’t stand a chance of finding him. With the stakes so high, this is very clear to both of them.

The ending is very satisfactory, wrapping up all the separate pieces. We’re also introduced to another interesting character who, I suspect (and hope), will become part of the team in the next book in the series.

Most wonderfully, though, I came away from my reading of this book with a desire to explore Alexander Calder’s work more fully. I wanted to see for myself the beauty of his mobiles. I wanted to play the Calder Game: design my own mobiles on paper, balancing ideas, things, concepts in ways they have never been balanced before.

The Author’s Note at the back of the book shows several of these mobiles on paper, created by various characters in the book. It would be difficult for a child who loved words not to view the Word Equations mobile in particular with huge delight.

The Calder Game is a wonderful mystery, filled with many different ideas about art and math and word play. It will inspire many children to learn more about art – on their own, without the prompting of a parent or a teacher. And most wonderfully, it leaves the reader with a sense of the accessibility of art, how art is all around us in our every day lives. Will I be buying copies of this for the curious, talented children in my life? Very definitely. Ms. Bookish’s Rating: A+: A Keeper ?


If other readers of The Calder Game are like me, and end up wanting to see Alexander Calder’s art after reading the book, here are some great links:

You can take a virtual tour at the National Gallery of Art’s website. Click on “hot spots” in the gallery pictures and then click on each individual hot spot. This will pull up a larger image of the particular work of art.

This is a gallery of Calder’s work, at the Calder Foundation website.

Wikipedia has lots of information and links to browse through, plus a mini-gallery of images.

And this video shows the movement of Alexander Calder’s mobile at the National Gallery of Art in time-lapse motion:

4 thoughts on “Review: The Calder Game, by Blue Balliett

  1. Matt

    I’m listening to audio books of Guernsey after I read the book. The audio is even more fun! I have Dewey the Library Feline waiting on the night-stand. I plan to read it on the flight to Asia. :)

  2. Pingback: Allergies, and Lots of Reading - Ms. Bookish

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