May 08, 2008


The Calder Game. By Blue Balliett. Illustrated by Brett Helquist. Scholastic. $17.99.

Sweet Valley High: No. 1, Double Love; No. 2, Secrets. By Kate William. Created by Francine Pascal. Laurel-Leaf. $5.99 each.

      Blue Balliett’s third art-focused detective caper for preteens and young teenagers is the most harrowing yet – and the most focused on trying to give her three young protagonists some individual personality. Balliett’s first two novels, Chasing Vermeer and The Wright 3, were deservedly popular for their offbeat approach of using art and architecture as driving forces, thus creating mysteries whose solutions actually got young readers thinking about (and involved in) the artistic world. But the three 12-year-old protagonists were never fully formed and differentiated characters – and in The Calder Game, Balliett seems aware of this fact and determined to change it. At one point in the book, a character sums up all readers have needed to know about the three central characters: “Calder the Math Whiz, Tommy the Finder, Petra the Scribbler.” Now, though, Calder Pillay, Tommy Segovia and Petra Andalee become more than three Chicago friends who play separate roles based on what single thing each is good at. For in The Calder Game, Calder the protagonist goes missing, and so does a massive statue by Alexander Calder – for whom Calder Pillay is named. The intertwined mysteries require Tommy and Petra to take a trip to England, where the statue and Calder both went missing. Furthermore, Tommy and Petra, who have not gotten along particularly well before, have to cooperate now, for Calder’s sake – and each has to try to think like Calder. And Tommy and Petra soon find themselves thinking like each other, too – growing and developing in ways that bode well for future Balliett books. The title The Calder Game refers to a game unveiled at a Calder exhibition in Chicago that the three friends attend before Calder Pillay and his dad go overseas; it also refers to the game being played – if it is a game – by someone in the book, who may or may not have nefarious motives. The book contrasts small-town insularity with big-city openness and British mores with American, and is neatly set by Balliett in real-world places (slightly modified for the story’s purposes). The unraveling of the interlocked mysteries is very well handled – enough so to overcome one significant flaw, in which something built centuries ago and long believed lost is surprisingly rediscovered…and then immediately destroyed, without regard for tradition or environmental issues. The seventh-grade detectives have grown by the end of the book, individually and as a three-person unit; and readers will grow in their appreciation of Calder’s art as well. Oh – and Brett Helquist, in addition to contributing his usual atmospheric illustrations, makes use of “Calder Code,” explained in the book, to bury a secret message for those interested in doing a little detective work of their own.

      The secrets are far more mundane in the re-release of the first two Sweet Valley High books, in which the characters are more one-dimensional than Calder, Tommy and Petra ever were. In fact, the two central characters are more or less half-dimensional, being identical twins with completely opposite personalities: “bad girl” Jessica Wakefield and “good girl” Elizabeth. Francine Pascal’s Sweet Valley High books are 25 years old and have been updated by Kate William to include cell phones, the Internet and other everyday conveniences that did not exist when the books were first written. But the basic plots have been retained, which is a good thing only for readers looking for fast-paced but thoroughly superficial slice-of-high-school-life stories. For those readers, the books get a (+++) rating; the novels will be of no interest at all to teens looking for something more meaningful than gossipfests and revelations of who did what with whom (no one did much with anyone, actually; sex is limited to kissing). Double Love introduces the twins and their brother, Steven, who gets this sort of helpful parental advice after he says “I really suck” because he broke up with his girlfriend: “‘I wouldn’t say that, kiddo,’ his father said, patting him on the back as he sat down at the table. ‘You’re just learning as you go along. That’s what we’re all doing.’” The main plot involves the sisters’ attraction to the same boy, Jessica’s nefarious attempts to prevent Elizabeth and the guy from getting together, and Elizabeth’s eventual triumph and amusingly damp revenge on her sister. Secrets is about Homecoming competition and Elizabeth being so worried about a friend that she actually agrees to let Jessica help: “‘It’s all so screwed up already, nothing could really make it worse.’” The friend, Enid, is Jessica’s competition for Homecoming Queen, so of course things get complicated even though a teacher offers Enid the helpful assessment that Jessica is “‘all cookie-cutter flash. ….You, my dear, are a timeless beauty.’” Readers who can put up with the insipid dialogue, the thinness of the plots and the utter superficiality of all the characters will find the Sweet Valley High books to be the same largely mindless pastimes that their parents found them to be in the 1980s.

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