The Mysteries of Blue Balliett

Author talks about her latest book, The Danger Box

  • Grades: 3–5, 6–8

Four years ago, Blue Balliett became an international literary sensation with her award-winning debut novel Chasing Vermeer about kids searching for a missing Vermeer painting. Since then she's followed up with two more best sellers: The Wright 3, a mystery about Frank Lloyd Wright's Robie House, and The Calder Game, which involves a missing boy and a missing sculpture.

Her latest book, The Danger Box, is another mystery that involves less art and more controversy. It revolves around the lost notebook of a famous scientist and a little boy who turns the inherent weakness of his disability into a strength.

Kid Reporter: You've had great success with your first three mysteries that deal with art and architecture. What prompted you to change the theme of this mystery to science?

Blue Balliett: That was kind of a surprise to me as well. And the reason it happened was because I went to the 2007 Darwin Exhibit at the Field Museum. I actually didn't know a lot about Darwin and who he was as a person. He was fascinating and had lots of qualities that today would be seen as weaknesses. He was nervous, made lots of lists, wasn't good at school, had difficulty doing homework, and had many other peculiar habits. Who would've thought that that this dreamy little kid would grow up to be one of the most important thinkers of all time? When I found out that one of his notebooks was stolen, I was like, "I have to write this book!"

KR: Your book is fiction, yet based on real people and situations—like Darwin and the notebooks he kept—and set in real places such as the town of Three Oaks, Michigan. How much artistic license have you taken when discussing Darwin's life experience and thought processes or life in the town of Three Oaks, Michigan?

Balliett: All facts relating to Darwin come from a huge amount of research because I wanted to share who he was as a person. All the details about Three Oaks are real, but I didn't have a chance to put in everything about the town, like its wonderful cinema or the town's playhouse. Drier's Meat Market is certainly real and, it's actually where The Danger Box is sold.

KR: Have any scholars or relatives of the famous people in your mysteries ever contacted you or given you feedback on your portrayals?

Balliett: I recently sent books to Darwin's family but I haven't received a response, yet. I hope to, though. When I sent Chasing Vermeer to Arthur Wheelock of the National Gallery, he let me know that he loved the book and he didn't disagree with the ideas. And after I sent a copy of The Calder Game to one of Alexander Calder's grandsons, I ended up having coffee with him in New York City.

KR: How much of you do you see in the characters in your books?

Balliett: I most identify with Miss Hussey, a character in my first three books. Our ideas about kids and teaching are similar (though I think she's cooler than I am.) Also as a kid, I was a lot like Petra. I liked to think and read and was kind of shy.

KR: The name Blue is unusual. What is the story behind your name?

Balliett: My real name is Elizabeth, but I've been called Blue ever since I was two days old. My mother came up with the nickname; it had to do with "Blue" being the color of the sky.

KR: What is your favorite book of all time?

Balliett: I love a lot of books, but my long-time favorite is Harold and the Purple Crayon, which I've loved since I was four years old. Harold had big ideas about imagining a world and putting himself into danger and then drawing himself out of it. I love the idea that you can draw yourself into a different world. That's sort of what Darwin did, too. He drew himself into a world, except he didn't completely draw himself out of it.

KR: Who is your writing idol?

Balliett: That's a hard question. I love a lot of different writers for different reasons. Agatha Christie is definitely a favorite. She didn't have a lot of training but she invented a way of intertwining plots and piecing together separate seemingly disconnected events that became a blueprint for the mystery genre.

KR: What do you miss most about teaching?

Balliett: I miss the kids and the surprises that happen in the classroom. Through teaching, I learned a lot about how kids think and put things together.

KR: What do you like to do when you're not writing?

Balliett: Hanging out with my family, traveling, exploring, reading. Definitely not cooking or cleaning (though I have to do both).

KR: What are you working on now?

Balliett: I spend a lot of time thinking, reading, playing with ingredients and stirring them around in my head before I actually start writing the book. So I can't really talk about it yet, because I'm not sure where I'm going to end up. Each book is really an adventure.

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