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U.S.A. Popcorn Adventure #74
December 03, 2008

If A Vermeer is Near

Chasing Vermeer + Vermeer Painting Visit

Few books have captured our childrens' imaginations like Chasing Vermeer by Blue Balliett (Scholastic Books, 2006), an art mystery that has been touted as "The Da Vinci Code for kids." When this book was first published, we listened to the CD version during a family road trip, and were all hooked on a suspenseful mystery filled with strange phenomena, clever clues, secret codes and incredible characters. Petra Andalee and Calder Pillay, two sixth graders, become fast friends when they team up to track down A Lady Writing, a Vermeer painting stolen en route to their hometown, Chicago. Petra receives mysterious messages from the beautiful woman depicted in A Lady Writing and Calder unravels clues through his pentominoes (a mathematical set of blocks), and together, the friends recover the painting. Our kids loved the quirky characters they met along the way, like a widow of a Vermeer expert, a bookstore owner and a favorite teacher, But most of all, our kids loved how it was elementary-schoolers who solved this high-profile crime that left adults, police and art experts flummoxed.

The chance to see a Johannes Vermeer's painting is rare, as only 35 works are known to be in existence. After becoming ardent fans of Chasing Vermeer, our kids were eager to see a real one, and we jumped at the chance to organize a family museum visit when a Vermeer was loaned to a museum in our city. Just a few steps into the gallery, our kids were greeted by a small painting of a woman smiling out at them from behind her writing desk. Our son was thrilled to see the same painting from the book, A Lady Writing, just inches from his nose. Our daughter was drawn to the fashion of the time, wanting to identify the fur that trimmed the young woman's yellow silk morning jacket (ermine), and wondering why her pearls were strewn on her desk rather than draped around her neck (kind of like those backpacks dropped at the front door!). On our way home, we stopped at a grocery store to pick up ingredients to bake a Dutch Apple Pie (see KOTC kernels below for our culinary expert's recipe), an authentic recipe that Vermeer might have enjoyed after a busy day at his easel. All in all, a yummy day!

Film Title: Chasing Vermeer
Directed By: Blue Balliett
2004, Rated , 272 pages

Our Buttery Bits of Wisdom about Chasing Vermeer:

  • Why It's Worth It: Well-written, suspenseful, and a great introduction to Vermeer, this book is first in a series that makes art come alive for chapter book readers. Click here to Scholastic's website about the book, that is filled with fun facts about the author, Vermeer and her other art mystery books (about Frank Lloyd Wright and Alexander Calder).
  • Red Flags: None, this book is wonderful, but watch the age of your reader: best for 9 - 12 year olds, and even better for kids who like to piece together information. If you have little ones, we purchased the CD version and listened to this on a family road trip. While the older kids thought through the mystery, the younger ones loved the kid heroes.
  • Pentominoes, what are those? Calder, one of the two main characters, owns a set of pentominoes (5 sided geometrical shapes), a kind of mathematical puzzle. He manipulates these to relax and think, but we also discovered that they are a great tool for teaching kids about patterns and geometry. Click here for the set we bought our kids. Click here for a lesson plan to use pentominoes to decode messages and create secret codes.
  • President-elect Obama's Kids Go to School with Petra and Calder: Chasing Vermeer is set in Hyde Park, Chicago, the pre-White House home of the Obama family. The book's illustrations are faithful to the neighborhood. Balliett, the author, is a long-time teacher at the Chicago Laboratory School, the same school as our soon-to-be first children Melia and Sasha attend.

Our Conversation Starters about this book:

  • Book Club SavvyClick here for a discussion guide for spurring great conversation about this book.  
  • Illustration Savvy:  Get kids to look closely at these wonderful illustrations created by Lemony Snicket artist Brett Helquist.  Why?  There are clues contained within the drawings.


Teaching Kids about Vermeer

Visit a real Vermeer or learn about this Dutch master through several great books and websites

Our Buttery Bits of Wisdom about this Adventure

  • What Worked for Us:  After reading Chasing Vermeer, our kids were eager to see a real one, but our city did not have a museum that owned a Vermeer as a part of its collection.  Instead, our kids have become Vermeer sleuths in every city we visit.  The Lady Writing, currently on loan in Los Angeles, returns home in February to the National Gallery in D.C. Manhattan and Las Vegas are feature original Vermeers.  Going abroad?  This summer, we admired four Vermeers at Amsterdam's Rijksmuseum. (Click here for a list of museum's with Vermeer paintings). But, if your kids love the Baliiett book, you can still educate them about this interesting painter by studying one of several books for kids on his art. We love the reproductions in Prestel's Adventures in Art series, and their Vermeer's Secret World is a wonderful, in depth introduction to the painter's work. The Getting the Know the Worlds' Great Artists series is easier to find, and their Vermeer book offers an equally good introduction.
  • Vermeer Is an Art Star: Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675) left behind only 35 paintings, including A Lady Writing. When 21 Vermeer's were exhibited together in 1995, over 4000 visitors a day admired them in Washington, D.C.'s National Gallery of Art. This painting is on loan from that museum, as part of an exchange program between the National Gallery, The Frick Collection in NY and the Norton Simon Museum of Art.
  • For Teens and Up: Screen A Girl With A Pearl Earring (or read the book) before visiting Vermeer. We adored Girl In Hyacinth Blue for teen girls and adults, wonderfully written historical fiction about Vermeer. We also loved reading this summer's interesting novel The Forger's Spell: A True Story of Vermeer, Nazi's and the Greatest Art Hoax of the Twentieth Century by Edward Dolnick.

Our City Editors' tips for enjoying this Popcorn Adventure around the USA:
  • Anywhere:  Click here for a link to the museums in North America and Europe where Vermeers are housed so you can access these masterpieces on line through the musuem websites. 
  • Boston: The closest one can get to seeing an authentic Vermeer in Boston is visiting The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum at 280 The Fenway which once housed a Vermeer. On March 18, 1990, two unknown white males, dressed in police uniforms, snuck into the museum at 1:24 AM and stole Vermeer’s “The Concert” painting along with 3 Rembrandts and 5 Degas paintings, all worth an estimated $300 million. To date, the paintings have not been recovered. Visit the site of the robbery between 11-5, Tuesday through Sunday.
  • Chicago:  Chasing all around Chicago won't locate a Vermeer, but Chasing Vermeer was sited in Hyde Park, and it's fun to choose a few illustrations from the novel and search for them around town.  If your kids want to see another well-known Dutch master, head to The Art Institute of Chicago to check out Rembrandt. 
  • Houston:  Although the The Museum of Fine Arts does not own a Vermeer, there is a beautiful Rembrandt (Portrait of a Young Woman) as well as a wonderful collection of masterpieces from the Dutch Golden Age when Vermeer was painting.  Currently, Rembrandt's Portrait of a Man, Bust-Length, in Red Doublet is on exhibit, as well (through July, 2009).
  • New York: New York City is Vermeer rich! In one afternoon you can search for Vermeers at two neighboring museums!  The Metropolitan Museum of Art owns five of the 35 known paintings by Vermeer, more canvases than any other museum in the world! Enjoy finding Vermeer's Young Woman with a Water Pitcher and his other works in the Museum's collection of Old Masters in the European Paintings Galleries. The Frick Collection on 71st street, just a few blocks south of The Met, has three Vermeer paintings in its permanent collection including Mistress and Maid. Since The Frick tries to maintain an atmosphere of a private house, very few cases or ropes protect their objects of art so only children over the age of 10 are allowed and children must be accompanied by an adult until 16 years old. Both museums are closed on Mondays.
  • Washington, D.C.: The National Gallery of Art is home to a small collection of Vermeer paintings: Woman Holding a Balance, Girl with a Flute, Girl with the Red Hat and A Lady Writing (currently on loan to a Los Angeles museum). The paintings are all on display in the West Building on the main floor.

Our Kids Off The Couch expert, Maite Gomez-Rejon, has worked in the education departments of renowned museums, including the Met, MOMA, the Getty and LACMA.  Gomez-Rejon runs a cooking school that specializes in creating dishes linked to important art periods (click here to link to her current class list), and offers up the following tips for Cooking Up Vermeer In Your Own Kitchen:

Did you know that the all-American Apple Crumble was actually brought to the United States by Dutch adventurers?  Here's how to to whip up a delicious version at home:

  • Ingredients:  6 green apples, 1/3 Cup Brown Sugar, 1/8 teaspoon slat, 1/4 Cup Sugar, 1 teaspoon Cinnamon, 1/4 teaspoon nutmeg, Crumble Topping
  • Crumble Topping:  1 Cup Butter, 1 Cup Flour, 1 Cup Sugar, 1/4 teaspoon Baking Soda
  • Directions:  Core the apples and cut into thin slices.  Put the apples in a bowl, toss them with sugar, brown sugar, salt, cinnamon and nutmeg.  Add them to a buttered 9-inch pan, top with the crumble.
  • Directions to Make Crumble:  Mix Crumble ingredients together until it looks like wet sand.  Then, gather amounts of the mixture and press them together between your palms to form sheets of dough.  Repeat this with all of the mixture and then arrange the dough over the apples.  Bake at 350 degrees F for about 60 minutes, or until the apples are tender.  Serve warm with vanilla ice cream. 

Want more? Here are KOTC's picks of films, books, music, and websites that connect your family to more culture.

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