The Calder Game

Reviewed: June 18, 2008
By: Blue Balliett
Publisher: Scholastic Press
379 pages, $19.99

It used to be assumed that young people would be alarmed by the sight of a thick book. Then came J.K. Rowling, whose Harry Potter books fattened up along the way until each of the last four in the series were as thick as the first three put together. And they still sold like hotcakes.

Since then there have been a lot of fat books for pre-teens and teens. That The Calder Game is one of them is quite obvious at first glance, but when you get inside the book you find that you really can’t judge a book by its packaging. This book has quite large type with lots of space between the lines and wide margins all round the pages, making it a perfect read for those folk whose eyesight is steadily diminishing with age.

There are barely an average of 185 words per page, which will encourage folks to think that their reading speed has increased dramatically as the pages fly by. The paperback edition could probably be about thirty pages shorter.

The author, Elizabeth "Blue" Balliett Klein seems to have taken a page from the career of the British science fiction author, John Wyndham Parkes Lucas Beynon Harris, who used bits of his actual name to make up his noms de plume (he had at least three). This is not a complaint. I can easily see that Blue Balliett is a more noteworthy author’s name than Elizabeth Klein would have been.

The Calder Game is the third in a series featuring Calder Pillay and Petra Andalee, and the second in which they are joned by Tommy Segovia. Theirs is a somewhat strained relationship in which Petra and Tommy are both friends with Calder, but not quite at ease with each other. A good portion of this story is about how the two of them overcome that problem.

Thye have to do this because Calder is removed from the picture at the beginning of chapter 7. Before that, however, the trio have been introduced to the work of Alexander Calder, the American sculptor and artist who is credited with the invention of the mobile. The visit to the Calder exhibit at the museum was a revelation to all of them, in spite of the killjoy presence of their new Grade 7 teacher, Ms. Button, who seemed to have no sense of fun in her at all.

When Calder and his father travel to England they find themselves in Woodstock, living in rooms on a street where another type of Calder creation, a stabile (or self-supporting abstract work), has just been donated to the neighbourhood. It seems a tad out of place in a setting which is otherwise late 19th century in appearance and, indeed, some of the locals don’t like it at all. It appears that this dislike extends to making off with the thing in the middle of the night.

Not long after that Calder also disappears, leaving a badly misspelled note for his dad. Days pass and there’s no sign of him. Mr. Pillay realizes that there must be some clues that both he and the police are missing, and he decides to hire a detective from back home to help find his son. She decides that she needs the help of Tommy and Petra, who haven’t been getting along at all well since Calder left Chicago.

They don’t make any real progress in solving the case until they begin to form their own friendship and stop competing with each other for first place with Calder. Once that happens things advance fairly rapidly and several mysteries are solved. It turns out that they’re not all connected, but no one could have known that in beforehand.

Balliet, a former school teacher (as Ms. Klein, we presume) has crafted an amusing story leavened with suspense and some insights on peoples’ behavior. For those who might wish to use them, the text contains a number of clues and puzzles that help to solve the mysteries.

Artist Brett Helquist, best known for illustrating the thirteen books in the A Series of Unfortunate Events series by Lemony Snicket, has provided 28 full page illustrations and a two page map of the area of Woodstock where most of the book takes place. The illustrations also contain clues to the mystery in the form of “letters that float and drift”. I’ve never been much of a hand at this sort of game and I didn’t spot any of them but the pictures do help the story along.

The earlier books featuring these characters also dealt with mysteries that involved art (Chasing Vermeer) or architecture (The Wright 3).