Pieces and Players

Book review by
Mary Eisenhart, Common Sense Media
Pieces and Players Book Poster Image
Kids from various books unite in muddled art-heist story.

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age 11+
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The parents' guide to what's in this book.

Educational Value

Pieces and Players offers loads of information about art in general and especially 13 works stolen in real life from a Boston museum in 1990 and still not recovered. There's a lot of detailed discussion of the images and elements in the art, partly as possible clues to the mystery. Most of the characters have deep, and perhaps obsessive, interests in particular subjects, such as Calder, who's always playing with pentominoes (a math toy) and uttering free-associated words beginning with the letters they represent. Prime numbers are a recurring theme. The Chicago setting, which mixes real landmarks with made-up ones, offers plenty of intriguing detail for would-be visitors.

Positive Messages

Friendship, and the way it enriches your life, is a big theme. Besides a strong message about love for art and the kinship among those who share that love, Pieces and Players also shows characters of different personalities, abilities, and backgrounds working together to solve a problem.

Positive Role Models & Representations

All the kids are well-intentioned, dedicated to the task of finding the stolen art while dealing with puberty's unwelcome hassles. They do a lot of questionable things in their investigation, from climbing onto busy train tracks to breaking into the museum at night, with adult help. All have loving, supportive adults in their lives. Many of the adult characters, from their former teacher, Ms. Hussey, to the rich, elderly museum trustees, do strange, suspicious-looking things that usually make more sense in hindsight. The ghostly Mrs. Farmer, the museum's long-dead founder, communicates with the kids and helps them in their search.


One old man dies of a heart attack, and some adults behave in mysterious ways that might be scary but usually turn out to be benign. The kids break into buildings at night and explore dark, creepy passages, but no one comes to harm.


The out-of-wedlock birth of a child  years ago plays a key role. Two adult characters have a budding, if rocky, romance, mostly expressed in goofy looks. The kids are dealing with a raft of puberty issues and worrying whether members of the opposite sex like them; a girl character decides not to go up a ladder ahead of the boys so as not to give them an eyeful. The kids are mildly embarrassed by all the art featuring nudes and comment that it must not have been the fashion to be fully clothed in the old days.


A bit of double-entendre humor as the kids realize that words they're using innocently (for example, "nuts") often also mean something crude. Occasional mentions of poop and worrying about farts.


Several references to the author's previous books, in which the characters first appear. The kids and an adult helper consult a Ouija board. Occasional mentions of real-life commercial brands (Starbucks, Monopoly, Yahtzee). Lots of detail about various attractions in the Chicago area, especially art.

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

A guard falls asleep after too much drinking on St. Patrick's Day, allowing thieves to make off with priceless art. When the kids start getting silly at a party, the adults say they've had too much Coke.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Pieces and Players unites the now-13-year-old protagonists of various Blue Balliet books (including Chasing Vermeer) in yet another search for stolen art. Sometimes aided by the adults who want them to find the art, they break into buildings, get hauled to the police station, climb onto train tracks, befriend a ghost, use a Ouija board, and attempt to form telepathic bonds with the people in the stolen paintings. Meanwhile, they're also dealing with puberty-related awkwardness, from acne and BO to hoping members of the opposite sex like them. Though there are some mildly scary moments, there's no real violence; the only fatality is from natural causes.

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Kid, 11 years old December 3, 2017

Pieces and Players Review

This book has a good plot but it is poorly written. It has good descriptions though.

What's the story?

After a small Chicago museum loses 13 priceless art works in a bold heist, the trustees call in help: 13-year-old Petra, Calder, and Tommy (Chasing Vermeer, The Wright 3, The Calder Game), Zoomy (The Danger Box), and Early(Hold Fast). As they seek the stolen objects, they travel to many Chicago sites of interest, get to know a lot of art installations, deal with adults behaving oddly, and cope with the challenges of getting to know one another and working together. (The fictitious Farmer Museum and its art are based on Boston's Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, from which the 13 works were stolen in 1990 and remain missing.) 

Is it any good?

This story throws together a lot of disparate elements and often doesn't quite gel; readers who don't know the previous books (mentioned frequently) will often find themselves at sea. There's an oddly matter-of-fact acceptance in PIECES AND PLAYERS not only of the existence of ghosts but of the ability of long-dead people to communicate telepathically with people through images and poetry. Many readers will find the frequent emoting over artworks a bit much. But most off-putting is the chore of dealing with several characters' idiosyncratic quirks; Calder's constant fiddling with pentominoes (a math toy) and stream-of-consciousness, apparently oracular word associations; Zoomy's note-taking and punctuating his sentences with "hodilly-hum" and "jittery-splat"; as well as several characters' tendency to burst out in Mother Goose rhymes. In the end, the payoff may not be worth the trouble.

For whatever reason, the book does not include actual images of the stolen art, which includes works by Rembrandt, Vermeer, and Degas, still missing in real life, even though it devotes much space to describing and analyzing them. Images are readily available on the Internet and may help you follow along.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about art and why it matters. Have you seen any paintings you really like? What do you like about them? What do they make you think about?

  • Have you visited Chicago? After reading this story, are there places you'd like to visit there and things you'd like to do?

  • What do you think really happened to the stolen paintings?

Book details

Our editors recommend

For kids who love mysteries and misfit tales

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