Talking with Blue Balliett

Four years ago, Blue Balliett became a children's-publishing sensation with the debut of her acclaimed first novel, "Chasing Vermeer," about kids searching for a missing Vermeer painting. Two years later, she followed up with another  best seller, "The Wright 3," a mystery about Frank Lloyd Wright's Robie House. Next month Scholastic is publishing her third children's novel, "The Calder Game," which involves a missing boy and a missing sculpture. Meanwhile, "Chasing Vermeer" remains in the news, since Al Roker is featuring it on his "Today" show kids' book club next month, and Brad Pitt's production company is turning it into a movie. NEWSWEEK's Karen Springen talks with author Blue Balliett, a fellow Chicagoan, about her latest projects. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: You grew up in New York City and saw Alexander Calder's mobiles when you were very young. Is that how you go the idea for your new book?
Blue Balliett:
Yes. I am 100 percent sure that my early exposure to Calder changed the way I think and see. Alexander Calder has fascinated me forever. His joyfulness, his lack of pretension, his fascination with balance, are all things I've carried with me all these years.

Brad Pitt's production company, Plan B Entertainment, is producing a movie version of "Chasing Vermeer." When is it coming out—and have you met Brad Pitt?
They're still in production. Don't have a date. I haven't met him [Brad Pitt]. I know we have ideas in common. I know he's interested in kids and art, and in architecture, and in how to give kids bigger ideas. My central message is that kids are powerful thinkers, and their ideas are valuable, and that adults don't have all the answers. Kids clearly are inspired by these books. That makes me happier than any news about book sales or anything else. [After reading the books, kids think] maybe my real world isn't so boring. Maybe there's a building I can save, or I can go to the museum and figure out something no one else has figured out.

Like you, many well-known kids' authors were teachers—Eoin Colfer, who wrote "Artemis Fowl," and Jon Scieszka, who wrote "The Stinky Cheese Man." You taught for 10 years, as a writing-enrichment teacher and then as a third-grade teacher. When did you stop teaching, and how has teaching helped you with your books?
This is my fifth year out of the classroom. I have three [grown] kids. I really spent the past 25 years all day, all night, with kids. I taught different ages, but I became a classroom teacher for third grade. I was a writing-enrichment teacher for a while. I got to have lunch with the kids in my classroom every day because there wasn't enough room in the lunchroom. I was a piece of furniture, and they were blabbing away about whatever they wanted to blab about. Kids do so much creative play that grown-ups don't listen to. As a teacher, you're privy to a lot of secrets. I do feel that kids' thinking is undervalued, and that's part of what got me to write. Kids really aren't being given the encouragement they need to tackle ideas. They have something valuable to contribute. In that way, I think these books are both original at this time, and they're rather old-fashioned. When I think back through children's literature, it's been quite a long time since kids have been given real-world problems.

What books from the past gave kids real-world problems?
"The Secret Garden" and "Treasure Island." Those are kids in an adult setting who have terrible odds, but they figure things out. They're normal kids.

Do you mean that like the kids in your books, they don't have any special powers?
To me, they're normal kids. I've listened to so much kids' thinking over the years, as a teacher and a mom. There's no question in my mind that kids love to be given big ideas to tackle. Especially ideas that kids don't have all the answers to. It's not only a smart thing to do, to give kids big ideas, but it feels good to kids.

Did you always write?
Yes. I knew I wanted to be a writer from the time I was 8 years old. I wrote a couple of books of oral history [such as] "Nantucket Ghosts." [Then] I just had to write "Chasing Vermeer." Plus my background was art history. The art world is fascinating because it's so provocative.

Is your next book also going to be about an artist?
I think I'm going to do something different with the next book.

You can't tell us?
Not really.

But you have the idea already?
Yeah. I always have more ideas than I have time and space to put them in.

Do you keep them all in a drawer?
I always carry a little notebook with me. When I talk to kids, I always show them my messy little notebook. I write down ideas all the time. They need to write ideas down when they get them.

How does it work with your illustrator, Brett Helquist, who also illustrated the Lemony Snicket series? Is he the first outside person to read your manuscript?
He doesn't see it until it's pretty much a done deal. He sees it probably when my editor first sees it. He's the one who wanted to plant a coded message in "Chasing Vermeer," and he did a different kind of message in "The Wright 3." He's done something very cool with "The Calder Game," which is also a coded message. He had to work from hundreds of photos of England for this last book, "The Calder Game." He came and stayed with us before he illustrated the book ["The Wright 3"] set in Hyde Park [in Chicago]. He loved the Robie House and was all excited about quirky Hyde Park.

You've talked about your research for "The Calder Game," which included visiting Woodstock, England, three times and eating lots of Cadbury chocolate. Does your family participate in all of this?
The kids are old enough so they're kind of doing their own thing now. My husband loves to do the travel and adventure, and he's a good photographer, so he'll take pictures of anything I want to take pictures of. He's an urban planner. He's the director of research for the American Planning Association here.

I'm assuming you were like the nice teacher, Ms. Hussey, not the mean teacher, Ms. Button, in "The Calder Game"?
Ms. Hussey and I certainly have thinking in common. I'm sure I would have been fired if I did everything Ms. Hussey did! The assignments she gives her kids are all things that came right out of my classroom. There are so many different ways you need to connect with kids. All of that stuff I learned in the classroom.

Like J. K. Rowling, you use male and female lead characters.
Right. I hear equally from boys and girls. I'm so excited about that. There are certain big chains that have boys' sections and girls' sections, and I hate that.

What's it like to get rave reviews—and occasional critical ones?
I've been really lucky as a writer. I haven't had too much pain come my way. It was such a surprise what happened with "Chasing Vermeer." I went from writing a book for my classroom to having all this—movie rights sold instantly. It was such a big noise. I was glad I was somebody in my 40s and not 22. I was really glad I had all that internal balance. Sometimes when you have that kind of success when you're very young, it can be so intimidating. I'm glad I'm a plain old mom, and I've been through a great deal of down-to-earth stuff in my life.

Do you consider your books a series since they all involve Calder Pillay (named for Alexander Calder] and Petra Andalee?
These three books fit together. They start with the idea, what's art about, and they all explore different complicated sides of the art world, and they explore friendship and relationships between kids. I feel as though I didn't start out to write a series, but I got so interested in the characters in "Chasing Vermeer," and then I wanted to give them another challenge and another. For now, I'm going to give these three a rest as a group, but I may come back to some of the kids. I am so not a formula person.

Your recently deceased 19-year-old cat, Pummie, is in "The Calder Game." Any other real characters?
All of my characters are real! They're all either modeled directly on real people or combinations of real people.

You like E. B. White and Roald Dahl. Any other favorite kids' book authors?
E. L. Konigsburg, I've also enjoyed forever. But particularly E. B. White's prose is just so spectacular, and Roald Dahl's. You can't write a good sentence unless you've read one. Read good English if you want to write.

How long do kids have to wait for your next book?
I've been writing a book every two years at the moment. We'll see how complicated it is to research this next one!

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