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Life Arts    H3'ed 6/16/11

Award-winning Children's Author Blue Balliett on "The Danger Box" and More

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My guest today is award-winning children's author, Blue Balliett. Welcome to OpEdNews, Blue. Your first books focus on the adventures of three University of Chicago Lab School sixth-graders. Your latest, The Danger Box, leaves that milieu behind for a history-driven mystery set in a small town in Michigan.  How did you stumble across Three Oaks and why did it seem like the right locale for this story?

photo credit: Bill Klein

I think The Danger Box may have been started by a string of bratwurst and a wooden floor covered with sawdust. Add to that a swing door that claps shut with a pulley, shelves of homemade jams and jellies and pickles, and used knives for sale. I'm not even a big meat-eater, but walking into Drier's Butcher Shop on a steamy July afternoon several years ago, I was a goner.

For me, it was love at first sight: Three Oaks, Michigan, just over an hour from Chicago, has one main street with a handful of businesses, a train that runs through the center of town but hasn't stopped there in fifty years, and a modest public library that floats inside an old office building. It's a slow-moving, slow-talking world, truly an island buried in endless fields of corn and soybeans.

Sometimes you 'recognize' something you've never seen before -- and that's exactly what happened to me that afternoon. I knew I'd come back to Three Oaks, although I wasn't sure when or why. Then in 2008, I read about a certain missing notebook, a small item that belonged to a person whose name is known around the world.

I was as sure as sure could be... I had a firecrackery 'aha' moment. Yes! That notebook would turn up in an old box, in a quintessentially American small town, in the hands of a child who might not see what he'd found.

And there was only one place for that box to be opened.

Yes, I can see that. Your books take a close look  at the way we learn, what we see and how we see it, our questions and how we tackle problem solving.  I wasn't surprised to discover that you taught school for many years. Is the fabulous Ms. Hussey, the teacher who features in your first two books, modeled on how you yourself taught or how you wished you had taught?

You are so right about a central theme in my books. I'm always fascinated by how kids -- and the rest of us -- learn most effectively. I did teach at the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools for ten years, and feel I learned a huge amount during that time about how kids best absorb, internalize and apply both knowledge and problem-solving skills. I entered as a writing enrichment teacher, and became a classroom teacher at third and fourth grades. All of the assignments that Ms. Hussey gives her class in Chasing Vermeer were assignments I'd dreamed up for school, and some of the classroom conversations in the book are actual exchanges. Ms. Hussey and I see eye to eye philosophically, but I would probably have been fired if I'd done all of the wild things she did! I was, however, a teacher who loved to launch into unpredictable, real-world investigations with my classes, adventures driven by the curiosities of the group.

At the start of each school year, I always asked my group of 7-, 8- or 9-year-olds what they wanted to know more about, and then we built the appropriate grade-level skill-building into whatever needed investigating. One year we became experts on Frank Lloyd Wright, and each of the kids ended up each designing a McDonalds restaurant (definitely not my idea!) as Wright might have done it in 1910, the year the Robie House was built. Their work was truly amazing, and we ended up being invited to meet with the McDonalds chief architect, in a headquarters boardroom, but that's a long story.

Another year, we followed the flight of the space shuttle Columbia while on a mission to service the Hubble telescope, and one of the astronauts kept in touch with us during the mission and even carried into orbit a CD filled with the kids' writings about space! The less I knew about the details of the subject at the start the better -- we could all learn together -- and I was open with my kids about what might or might not work. Needless to say, it wasn't always possible to weave all of the standard curriculum into a project, so if we needed to simply study the times tables or spelling, for instance, I always reminded the kids why this information would help them. In my experience, we all work much harder when something feels both relevant and useful in the real world.

This is a long answer to a short question, but it's dangerous to ask me about learning... Ms. Hussey and I are both passionate on the subject, and could go on forever!

And that's exactly what has made you two such good teachers! You've also spent a lot of time exploring how characters communicate and interact with one another, warts and all. The relationship between Petra and Calder, Calder and Tommy and then between Petra and Tommy are so complicated, evolving and true to life. Over the course of the first three books, we readers become very attached to these kids. I'm sure you did, too. Was it hard to let them go?  Will we be hearing from them again any time soon?

I've truly loved Calder, Petra and Tommy's company, and I wouldn't be at all surprised if they needed to come back and work on a few unresolved issues. I'm glad you appreciated the teeter-totter nature of the threesome! The complications of a triangle became unexpectedly intriguing to me as I was writing. I think threesomes are tough to keep in balance at any age, but can be especially tricky and painful when you're a kid. One of the biggest surprises to me, in writing these books, was how the characters truly came to life as the stories unfolded and then stayed alive in my imagination. The only reason Calder, Petra and Tommy weren't in The Danger Box, my fourth and most recent mystery, was that the setting for this story needed to be a very small town, not a university community. The famous object at the heart of the mystery had to turn up where it might not be recognized and as I got into the plot and a new set of characters, I became fascinated by how an unlikely friendship of a very different sort could unfold, a friendship between a small-town boy who can barely see and a lonely girl visiting from the city. This was also a challenging relationship to look at; at first glance these two seemed hopelessly unalike and probably unable to even notice each other. But a powerful circumstance then pulled them together, and qualities that at first looked like weaknesses, in both kids, began to shift and evolve in the company of the other.

I guess I'm always drawn toward that kind of alchemy. And in The Danger Box, I loved the idea of allowing a kid who was legally blind to see more than anyone else around him. I also loved the idea of allowing the reader to get to know the super-famous owner of the object at the heart of this mystery -- okay, it's Charles Darwin -- when he was an unpromising kid, a kid with a number of 'problem' behaviors. The big question here: Can what seems at first to be a handicap, or something 
'wrong' with a kid, become a source of power and strength over time? Love that question! Wish more adults asked it when evaluating kids who don't fit the mold... 

It reminds me of that tried but true adage about learning how to make lemonade.  When did you first discover pentominoes? Do they help you work things out like they do for Calder? Are you a whiz like he is?

I had never even heard of a pentomino before I began teaching at the Laboratory Schools.  A master teacher and innovative mathematician there, Bob Strang, introduced me both to the magical powers of pentominoes in the classroom (they can be used for spatial reasoning, multiplication skills, area, perimeter, etc.) and to the definition of mathematics as a search for order, pattern and beauty.  Arithmetic, seen in that light, fits inside a larger picture, as do pentominoes.

A set of pentominoes is an amazing teaching tool as it feels so much like a game or puzzle.  Pentominoes were not invented for children, but young kids can become extraordinarily adept at using them, developing and applying strategies in what seems like no time at all. It's possible to make thousands of rectangles of varying shape and content with one set of twelve pentominoes, and yet many adults -- me, for instance -- are far slower than an 8-year-old to put a large rectangle together.

Everything I learned about kids and pentominoes I learned from observing; I had many students over the years, both boys and girls, who invented symbolism and special meanings for individual pieces in much the same way the character Calder does in my books.  I saw pentominoes used for codes, artwork, guessing games and mazes.  And I discovered that for kids who had difficulty with concentration during, say, a quiet writing time in the classroom, being allowed to fiddle around with a set of pentominoes while thinking seemed to help.

In my classroom, every kid was given their own plastic set in a sandwich bag, on the first day of school, with their initials in permanent marker on each piece.  Over the years I've bumped into many former students, some now in their twenties, who've rushed over to say hello and give me a hug, then admitted with a grin that they still have their third-grade set of pentominoes.  Now, that makes me happy.

I love that story, Blue! You've been writing since you were really young. Was your major in art history merely a case of following your passion or part of a conscious larger plan to use what you learned to broaden your writing?

When I was growing up in New York City, museums were largely free for kids, and were much quieter places.  I liked being able to wander into a museum, look at what I wanted, and get pleasantly lost in imagining the stories behind the art; as a kid, I approached museum exhibits as if they belonged in a book.  When I took the first-ever art history class offered in my high school, I was hooked.  I knew what I wanted to study in college.

I think art history, by the way, may be one of the least practical majors anywhere. If you don't go into museum work or academia, what on earth do you do with it?  I'm afraid just about every major decision in my life has been motivated by passions, with just a pinch of logical, sensible thinking -- and for me, that has worked. The world of art makes me both happy and curious; how a person experiences art is so individual, and yet all art belongs to the era in which it appeared.  It's a complex balance of present and past, a tricky combination that changes depending on a person's age and knowledge of the art world.  Following a passion generally means evolving with it, and that's certainly been true for me.

In a nutshell, I've loved ducking in and out of museums all my life, and also been reading about art crimes forever -- the stakes are high, and the objects far more personal and fragile than jewels or money.  So when a group of third graders at the Lab School, one year, told me they were interested in art and in unsolved mysteries, we were off and running.  I was impressed by how acute their observations were, and how interested they were in art crimes and unanswered questions within the art and business communities, such as -- ahem -- issues of attribution with a hugely valued painter like Vermeer.

Children can become expert observers of some of the big controversies in the art world, which is, in reality, a super-intense version of the everyday world.  Talents and vision are sharply focused, stakes are high, and unique is the norm.  I've loved introducing kids to some of the age-old questions about art.  Will anyone ever really have one answer to what makes an object valuable, or what art is?  What a good place to sharpen your teeth as a critical, analytical thinker; what a good place to look and learn with care.

That segues nicely to my next question, Blue. You have an incredibly upbeat view of the next generation - in terms of smarts and ability. Do you think that outlook and its reflection in your writing - has had a bearing on why so many kids enjoy reading your books?

My view of kids' brainpower comes from being a mom of three and a teacher of hundreds, and from experimenting and observing.  In my experience, kids often reflect what the adults around them believe they can do.  In other words, if they get the message that they're capable problem-solvers, they will be more capable and, sadly, vice versa.  This is probably just the way human nature works; this is true for us all.

Kids have taught me that a satisfaction and even a thrill in learning can be contagious.  It can spread.  That is, being excited about uncovering something valuable or tackling a problem feels good, and it can affect the person next to you and the world you see.  (Perhaps that is why so many people of all ages read mysteries!)  But seriously, that take-charge side of learning appeals to us all, and I believe that if we could build on that in our schools and in the way we examine curriculum, we'd be encouraging a ton of underutilized thinking-power.

In my mysteries, I try to give readers what I feel they can take away and reshape within their own lives, whether they discover these books on their own or in a school context.  And, in structuring these thoughts on the page today, I realize that inspiring others inspires me.  Inspiration can move in a circular way; when I hear from kids that my books have helped them to try seemingly impossible things or approach the world around them from a new angle, I'm happy and intrigued.  And I'm ready to tackle more.  That, for me, is what writing is all about.

I've just come from the world finals of Odyssey of the Mind, which is a team-oriented, mental Olympics for kids from kindergarden through college. Teams work over the course of the school year, with no adult input,  and the creativity with which they solve the problems is nothing short of amazing. It goes along beautifully with what you just said.

The illustrations in your books work well really well, advancing the story line while incorporating hidden objects and clues. Did you have input in his selection and how much do you work with him in the course of putting a book together?

Not much.  Brett has been wonderful to work with, and poured lots of his own thinking into the codes hidden in the beautiful work he did for Chasing Vermeer, The Wright 3 and The Calder Game.  In the making of each book, he asked me for a message to be hidden in code in his illustrations, and then, once I'd given him the phrase, he ran with it.  I've always loved the surprise of seeing his part of the puzzle appear in each mystery.

For the Hyde Park settings, Brett came to visit and stayed with us.  He took lots of pictures, explored the neighborhood, and went into the university buildings and the Robie House with me.  For The Calder Game, he used a ton of photographs taken by my husband in England.  All of the physical details, for each book, are really accurate.  The illustrations themselves are actually paintings, which I find amazing; it would be great to see them come together in an exhibition one day!

You're right! I bet it would be a hit with your readers. You have a fun, very user-friendly website, by the way. Was that an accident?

Absolutely not; I wanted the site to be inviting to kids as well as adults, and did lots of looking for a designer who could create that feeling.  Denise Biondo did a wonderful job, I think, of inviting the reader in, giving lots of info about many sides of these books and me, and yet not overwhelming the visitor.  I especially like the opening map and the cricket-chirps when you hit on each part of the site!  I hope there is a feeling of uncovering a few secrets in there, as well.  Mysterious yet accessible is the combination I wanted.

Mysterious but accessible - I think you hit it right on the head, Blue. Thank you so much for talking with me. It was fun getting the inside scoop on your writing. I can't wait to see what you come up with next! 
Thank you, Asher, for sharing your love of Blue's books with me. 

Blue's website

Blue's website at Scholastic
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Joan Brunwasser is a co-founder of Citizens for Election Reform (CER) which since 2005 existed for the sole purpose of raising the public awareness of the critical need for election reform. Our goal: to restore fair, accurate, transparent, secure elections where votes are cast in private and counted in public. Because the problems with electronic (computerized) voting systems include a lack of (more...)

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