Book Review: The Calder Game by Blue Balliett

I had purchased this book after hearing the author speak at a conference a few years ago. I’d forgotten about it and needed a quick read I could focus on while watching the kids this summer. While this is the third in a series, I had not read the other two: I chose this one after hearing the author speak about the mathematical elements of the novel. Calder, the protagonist, uses pentominoes (you can see an overview of what they are here:; think Tetris) .

The book takes place mostly in England. Following a Calder (the artist, not the protagonist) exhibit in Chicago, the protagonist and his friends are inspired to think about ways to make moving art–mobiles, for instance. They are also inspired to see the world in different ways and perspectives by thinking about the way the Calder exhibits constantly change. This theme helps the three friends learn to see each other’s perspectives, whereas in previous books (it’s implied) they did not.

Calder goes to England with his dad and is allowed lots of free time to explore a small town–alone–while his dad attends to professional duties. Calder disappears, and his friends show up from Chicago to try to help the stumped police find him. While this was a cool idea (for a kid to show up because the police can’t figure it out), I found it a bit of a stretch that a bunch of kids were allowed to run through crime scenes in England with special permission of an investigator. Still, cool for kids.

While Calder has disappeared, there is also a missing statue–a work by Calder–and no one is sure if the two disappearances are related.

While I enjoyed the book overall, I wondered if I would enjoy it as a kid. Some of the grown-up characters seemed indistinct after their first or second mention, and I had to keep reminding myself which was which. There was also a lot of point of view shifting, which helped to build suspense within the mystery, but I could see myself getting confused about this as a kid–too many POV shifts used to throw me off.

It’s always been a pet peeve of mine as a reader: if there is too much POV shifting in a mystery, I get frustrated about why information was withheld from me in the first place, when ultimately it is revealed through the voice of a narrator anyway.

Reading the material after the story ends, it seems the book offers a lot of details for a second read. For instance, the author reveals that the illustrator hid letters within each of the illustrations, and the reader is invited to rearrange those letters. Like the characters in the novel, the reader is invited to participate as an artist.

The book itself could definitely help young readers learn about things like pentominoes and how to build mobiles, how words’ sound and meaning can go together, etc. It’s a good read for a young reader willing to engage in details. I’m putting it on the shelf for my kids once they get a little older!

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