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Visiting Author Series

November 8, 2005, 1-2pm ET

Moderated Author Chat
Blue Balliett
Flashlight Readers Featured Author
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On November 8, 2005, award-winning author Blue Balliett participated in a chat with Scholastic students and teachers. Balliett's first children's book is Chasing Vermeer. The sequel, The Wright 3, will be available in April 2006.

How do you get your ideas?
I think I always have more ideas than I have places to use them. But I’m sure that most of the ideas in my book Chasing Vermeer and my new book The Wright 3 came from my 10 years as a teacher in the classroom — and of course from being a mom.

Were you always interested in coincidences?
I think all kids notice coincidence and as a teacher and a mother, I noticed there wasn't a good explanation for kids when they noticed such things — and yet coincidences feel meaningful. So, in Chasing Vermeer, I wanted to show kids that coincidences sometimes do matter even though we can't explain them.

Did some people in your life appear in your story?
Yes, absolutely. All of the characters in Chasing Vermeer are combinations of people I know. The kids in the story came out of my classroom with a little sprinkling of my own kids added. The adults all live in Hyde Park and are all people I know.

Are there any plans for a Chasing Vermeer movie?
Yes, Warner Brothers bought the rights and Brad Pitt's production company “Plan B” is handling it. I don't know when it’s coming out, but it’s in the works.

Are you going to write another book about Hyde Park? The area is so interesting due to the Chicago World's Fair.
Actually, I have a second book coming out in which Calder and Petra are back. They’re still in Hyde Park and Tommy comes home. You see different sides of Hyde Park and a different season. This takes place in spring and early summer. The book is called The Wright 3 partly because a lot of the action takes place in and around Frank Lloyd Wright's “Robie House,” which is right near the school. The new book will be out in April 2006.

Will you be writing any other books after The Wright 3? If so, how many?
Good question! I know I love to write and I have many more ideas I want to explore so I’m sure the answer is yes.

What’s your life outside of writing books?
I live right in the world in these books — not on Harper Avenue but nearby. When I’m not writing, I take walks; I love to read and lie in the hammock; and I love to travel.

Why did you use a lot of 12's and colors in your book?
These are very good questions! It's hard to answer in a short space. I think the 12’s started with the 12 pentomino pieces and then they just kept popping up. I didn't even realize that my name had 12 letters until after Petra and Calder's names appeared with 12 letters in each. Really the 12’s just followed me around after a while.

I think my interest in colors has nothing to do with my name, but I’ve always loved looking at all kinds of different art. When you look at art closely, you begin to realize that color is a huge amount of art.

What gave you the idea for using blue M&M's?
I should tell you that Chasing Vermeer took about five years to complete because I was teaching all that time and my kids weren't grown up yet. When I found the blue M&M’s in the supermarket one day and they found their way into the plot, they were brand new. That tells you how old the book is. Plus, it’s weird to eat anything that is blue and I like that idea.

Do you think you would ever want to be a teacher again?
Yes, I absolutely loved working with kids and they have taught me a huge amount — and I think in some ways, once you are a teacher, you’re always a teacher. I think you can see that in my books.

What’s the most Chasing Vermeer-like coincidence that has happened to you or that you have been aware of in your life?
Oh my gosh! I think there have been periods in my life where coincidences have stuck to me like lint from a dryer. I don't know why this happens, but I always notice it and it always fascinates me. If I were to pick out one coincidence, I'd say that parts of Chasing Vermeer popped up right at the right moment. For instance, the 12’s we were talking about earlier.

Is there anything that was edited from your book that you regret being excluded?
I think everything that came out of the book came out for a reason, but sometimes when I’m looking at it, I can see the ghosts of paragraphs that aren't there any longer and that's funny.

Was it hard to write the book?
I loved writing the book. Because I thought I was just writing it for my classroom, I put in everything I wanted to and I never thought it would be published.

I think one thing that I did was to make connections between ideas that aren't usually connected, which is something that kids do so well and which was a challenge and a lot of fun to do.

Have you read Lo!?
Oh yes! I found the copy of Lo! that Petra finds, 25 years ago outside a library. It was published in 1931 and I did the same thing Petra did in Chasing Vermeer, I opened it up and said "What!?! How can this be?"

How did you feel when you saw your book on a shelf?
I’m still surprised. I wrote at least 10 drafts of Chasing Vermeer and I wrote them sitting on a spare bed in our laundry room. So I’m still very surprised to see the book looking like a book.

Why did you put frogs in your book?
I think the frogs first got there through Lo!, Charles Fort's book, and then I felt as though Tommy needed some contact with a frog. Then Brett Helquist put the illustrations of the frogs in on his own.

How did you get your book published if you weren't expecting to?
I had an agent from nonfiction adult books I’d written a long time ago and she submitted my weird manuscript to some publishers and five made offers right away. It's all been an adventure.

What character can you relate to most?
Well, I really like sides of all of the characters, but I would say Ms. Hussey and I think a lot alike, but as a teacher I would definitely look behind me if I were crossing the street with my class. I might not be quite as wild.

Will you play one of the characters in the movie?  (Ms. Hussey???)
(Laughing) I don't think so.

Have you painted any paintings yourself?
No, I do all of my making things with words.

Have you always been interested in Vermeer?
I have for a long time. I think partly because I grew up in New York City and there are eight Vermeers here. And then I studied Vermeer in college and I think I've always loved the fact that so little is known about him, maybe because I’m a trouble maker.

Do you keep a writer's journal?
In a way — I always carry a small notebook no matter where I am, which is usually a mess of scribbles because you never know when you’re going to get a big idea.

I’m a student and I’m on chapter three of my book. I've rewritten it four times. Any advice?
Keep going! Writing is rewriting. I forget who said that, maybe Ernest Hemingway.

Do you play with pentominoes at home?
When I was writing Chasing Vermeer and when I was writing the new book that I just finished, I needed to play with pentominoes a lot in order to get my thinking clear. But I’m not nearly as good at them as many of the 8 and 9 year olds I’ve taught. Kids have much better brains.

What grade did you teach?
I first began as a writing resource teacher and taught 3rd through 6th graders and then I became a classroom teacher. I just love 3rd grade because kids can do such great thinking but they aren't all grown up yet.

Why was there a code and how did you think of it?
I think kids are naturally very quick in making up their own codes and I’ve watched kids do this many, many times. I think I made up this code on a bus going someplace and it seemed to work with the material.

What gave you the idea to have the secret code in all the pictures?
That was something my editor and Brett Helquist came up with — and I am so glad!

Are you friends with Brett Helquist?
Yes. We didn't know each other before doing Chasing Vermeer, but he came to visit me in Hyde Park before he began illustrating the book and he came back before illustrating the second book The Wright 3. We've had fun working together.

Are there different patterns in The Wright 3 like in Chasing Vermeer?
Yes, there are lots.

What’s your favorite book you've ever read besides Chasing Vermeer?
That’s a tough question because I love to read. I loved different kinds of books at different stages in my life. One of my favorite kid's books was From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E. L. Konigsburg. Right now I have a pile of books that I’m planning to read for Scholastic Read for 2006, where kids all over the world connect through reading.

For more information about Read for 2006 on December 2, go to

What do you like better, reading or writing?
I love doing both of them. Writing is a very messy process and always unpredictable for me. Sometimes I figure out what I’m thinking while I’m writing without realizing that the idea was already in my head. I love to read anyplace and anytime.

What’s your cat's name?
One of my kids originally named him Ginger, but because he’s very huge and fat, his name somehow became Pummie. I have no idea how that happened.

Are there other authors in your family?
Yes, my dad is a writer. He wrote for The New Yorker magazine for a long, long time. His name is Whitney Balliett.

What made you think of the names Calder, Petra, Ms. Hussey, and Mrs. Sharpe?
Calder's name happened because I've always loved the artist Alexander Calder and I couldn't use his name when we had our son because it didn't sound quite right with our last name. Petra came from a pile of National Geographic magazines that I was clearing off the table at home. I opened to a story about the city of Petra and suddenly the name felt just right. I think I've always liked having an unusual name and I wanted to give Calder and Petra different names as well.

Ms. Hussey came from an old name on Nantucket Island as well as the meaning of the word "hussy," which is an old fashioned word. Mrs. Sharpe just somehow fit her.

What's your favorite thing about having such a colorful name?
I don't know why I wasn't teased in school, but I’ve always felt lucky to have a name that is pretty much all my own.

If you were to make a CD to go with your stories, what kind of music would be on it?
Hmmm, that's hard — probably music that’s kind of suspenseful.

Is letter writing dead?
Not at all!

What tips would you give students who want to write a mystery?
I would say to expect to write a few drafts of their story because it’s difficult to figure out all the red herrings as you’re writing the story line.

What question would you most like a fan of your books to ask you and what would the answer be?
Wow! You know, I love to get questions from kids and I never mind questions that don't have answers. I'm not sure if I would want to have a favorite question that had an answer.

What is your favorite part of Chasing Vermeer?
I think it's a huge relief when Calder and Petra get to be friends. I’m so happy for both of them.

Are you a big fan of mysteries yourself?
I’ve always loved real life mysteries. Why? I don't know, but maybe it’s because I’m a curious person.

What made you like art so much?
I think part of it was growing up in New York City where there are so many museums. When I was a kid in New York, you could run in and out of museums after school. They were places to hang out.

What is your favorite painting by Vermeer?
I never get tired of “A Lady Writing,” in part because you’re never going to be able to figure out what she's thinking — and yet she seems like the kind of person you would want to get to know.

Will your next book be illustrated by Brett?
Yes. He just finished the paintings for it.

Do you think Calder and Petra will become a couple?
(Laughing) What do you think?

Did you have your students write a lot of stories?
Yes, we did lots of writing in my classroom.

Did your students like your book?
Yes, I think reading it was a funny experience for some of them because the assignments from the book came from my classroom and they weren't entirely sure they liked sharing Ms. Hussey with the rest of the world.

Why did Calder and Petra solve the mystery instead of the adults?
Because that's what should happen in real life — kids have such great ideas and they often don't have the opportunity to make them work in the real world until they get older. It shouldn't be that way.

If you heard that a real Vermeer had been stolen what would your reaction be?

How did you find time to teach and write a book at the same time?
It was hard. I stopped folding laundry and I wrote at funny times of day.

Was writing your favorite subject to teach?
That’s hard to say. I found that when I was working on a project with one of my classes it always felt to me like the most interesting thing ever. I think whenever you’re really focused on one thing, whether it’s a math idea or a piece of writing, it becomes really fascinating.

Are you planning to make a third story?
Probably. It’s a lot of fun to do.

Will The Wright 3 have strong math connections like Chasing Vermeer?
Calder gets into three dimensional pentominoes in The Wright 3 and another kind of math pattern also found its way into the story.

What was your favorite subject in school?
Probably writing. I hated math. When I was first beginning to teach, I worked with a mathematician who made me see math as a search for patterns and for beauty, and that felt completely different to me.

Were you an A+ student?
(Laughing) I did okay.

Other than mysteries, what kind of story would you be interested in writing?
I’ve always been fascinated by poetry and I have written quite a bit of that on and off.

How long do you spend on your book each day?
I feel like it’s such a luxury to have uninterrupted writing time now that on days when I’m getting things done, I like to work for a long time. Then there are days when you can't seem to think as well and then I give up a little earlier.

If you could have three wishes what would they be?
I’m not sure wishes should be public. That sounds dangerous, don't you think?

Thank you for joining us for today's chat.
Thank you so much. It's been great to be with you!

Bulletin Board
illustration Tyson Smith