May 11, 2006


The Wright 3. By Blue Balliett. Illustrated by Brett Helquist. Scholastic. $16.99.

     Blue Balliett’s second art-related mystery is even more self-assured than her first, the bestselling Chasing Vermeer.  Like its predecessor – which was Balliett’s first book – The Wright 3 is deftly plotted, with likable (if not entirely real-seeming) characters and a fascinating mystery that incorporates genuine artistic – in this case, architectural – knowledge and information.

     The book is aimed at readers roughly the same age its three eponymous protagonists, who are not quite 13, and it has the fast pacing and intrigue sure to appeal to this age group.  But there is more here: Balliett has figured out how to take real-world mysteries, add a few fictional but plausible ones, and create a book that explores subjects (such as art and architecture) that are taught dully in school, if they are taught at all.

     The focus here is the Frederick C. Robie House, commissioned from Wright in 1908 and completed by him in 1910.  It still stands in Chicago and is now protected, after nearly being demolished in 1941 and again in 1957.  Balliett’s book places the house in jeopardy yet again, with young detectives Petra and Calder, along with Calder’s friend, Tommy, setting out to preserve it.

     There are nefarious doings afoot – there is, in fact, something literally fishy about certain plans for the house (that’s a clue).  Balliett also introduces a ghost (maybe), a hidden treasure (definitely), and a coded message (extremely cleverly).  And she really makes readers think about what art is, as when the kids’ teacher, Ms. Hussey, has students create a list of what makes the Robie House qualify or not qualify as art.  In the YES column, for instance, one writes, “Art should have surprises.  The house looks like [sic] it’s full of places to go in and out and change directions.”  In the NO column, one entry says, “Art shouldn’t be dangerous.  This house looks like [sic] it has too many places for a kid to fall.”  The point is not whether these criteria are right or wrong – the point is that Balliett wants readers to think about their criteria for art, and whether they agree or disagree with the comments of Ms. Hussey’s class.

     The Wright 3 would not succeed if it were merely a didactic novel, of course.  And in fact, kids can simply read it as a fast-paced mystery story and enjoy it thoroughly – though not completely.  Petra, Calder and Tommy do face danger and bad guys and all sorts of uncertainties here, and they do handle their adventure with the usual pluck.  Even at the surface level, the book is fun.  But there is more here, both in the writing and in the illustrations: the angularity and occasionally odd perspectives of Brett Helquist’s paintings put one in mind of Wright himself, and Helquist’s pictures contain an imaginative visual puzzle that readers will enjoy solving on their own – during or after their enjoyment of matching wits with the heroes of The Wright 3 and the book’s clever and intellectually adept author.

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