Life can be hard for everyone. However, if your family is poor, your dad suddenly disappears (and is wanted for questioning by the police you were hoping would find him), and you are suddenly living a desperate life with your mother and little 4-year-old brother in a scuzzy homeless shelter, "hard" takes on a whole new meaning. Welcome to the life of 11-year-old Early Pearl, a Chicago pre-teen who went from worrying about girly problems like what to wear the next day to solving the mystery of her father's disappearance in the blink of an eye.
This is a mystery, though not your Nancy Drew or Encyclopedia Brown type with clear clues and an easy, logical ending. When Blue Balliett writes a book, you can expect things to be a bit more complex, and they certainly are in this book. There are international crime rings, retired English teachers, strangely-accented secretaries, and tiny, valuable, and totally mysterious diamonds to mix things up for the reader. You'll find yourself solving the mystery right along with Early, and that is the way it should be, because you will be so sucked into the story that you won't want to stop to figure out who the bad guy is. This is great writing, and a powerful plot, and will leave you wanting more until the (satisfying) end.
Though Mrs. Balliett has a reputation around my school for being a difficult author for upper-elementary kids to read, this is probably her most accessible book, and it deserves a look by those who lost interest after too many obscure art references in the Chasing Vermeer series. There is a delightful story-within-a-story about Early's brainstorm for helping the homeless children of Chicago find homes, and indeed this story serves the secondary purpose of reminding us that people who are on the streets are not there by choice, and that even the most hardworking, honest, and brave folks may be out of luck with few options.
One last thing: It could be said that this is also a book about American poet Langston Hughes, who shows up throughout as a constant source of inspiration to the Pearl family, and without whose writings the mystery may never have been solved. What's the rhythm, Langston? It's high time you read this book and find out.