Q: Describe what’s in The Danger Box.
BB: The Danger Box is a mystery set in a very small, very quiet town in Michigan, one that could be almost anywhere in the United States. A worn, red notebook appears, one that might or might not have belonged to one of the most famous and controversial thinkers ever, a person who has been dead for over a hundred years—and whose name is known around the world. Dangerous sparks are struck…and soon a boy, a girl and a way of life are surrounded by flames.
Q: You’re widely known for writing books about famous artists and visionaries – Johannes Vermeer in Chasing Vermeer, Frank Lloyd Wright in The Wright 3, Alexander Calder in The Calder Game, what made you decide to write a new mystery focusing on a world-renowned scientist?
BB: Science is filled with as much controversy and as many questions as art—especially the scientific ideas of this particular thinker. But the ideas that made this man’s name a household word also hid who he was as a person. My hope in writing this book was to give kids more access to this inspiring, humble and often-misunderstood guy.
Q: You have said The Danger Box is a book you HAD to write. Can you explain that?
BB: When I stumbled on the fact that this one priceless notebook was missing, I was so excited—and the story practically told itself. Wouldn’t it be amazing if this object were actually found one day by one of the kids who read my book? Stranger things have happened, and sometimes fact follows fiction...
Q: How did you choose the setting for The Danger Box?
BB: I knew I wanted a small community, and one within easy driving distance of Chicago, where I live. When I first saw Three Oaks, I fell in love with it—there’s one main street with just a handful of local businesses, a train that runs through the middle of town but hasn’t stopped there in fifty years, and endless fields of corn and soybeans. It almost feels like a small island buried in green.
Q: Can you talk about your research process for this book? Did you discover anything about this famous man that surprised you?
BB: I read lots about this man’s life, which is often overshadowed by his ideas. I felt he could be an accessible and inspiring friend to all kinds of kids. He started out with lots of weaknesses and difficulties—anxiety, lack of success at school, compulsive collecting and list-making, to name a few—and yet somehow those qualities that tripped him up at first might not have been all bad, and perhaps they even became strengths that contributed to his work and fame.
Q: Do you still write in your laundry room? Describe your writing process.
BB: I do; I started out working in there when our kids were teenagers, as it’s out of the way but still in the middle of the house. When I get stuck writing on my laptop I go to a legal pad. I carry a pocket-sized notebook everywhere, and write down ideas whenever they occur. Sometimes, if I’m puzzling over a piece of the plot, it becomes clear just as I’m falling asleep or when I first wake up.
Q: You have said that the characters from your previous novels were loosely based on some of the kids you taught when you were a teacher at the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools. Are Zoomy and Lorrol based on real kids?
BB: All of my characters are inspired by kids I taught and people I’ve known, but Zoomy’s special way of seeing is a quality I’ve only observed from a distance. Before beginning the book, I visited an optometrist who fitted me with lenses that made it possible to temporarily glimpse the range of Zoomy’s vision, and this doctor also allowed me to see what Zoomy’s glasses might look like from the outside. While I was writing, I was always trying to imagine myself inside Zoomy, looking out.
Q: Zoomy’s grandparents are very supportive of him and treat him like any other kid, despite his physical challenges. Did you have similar grandparents?
BB: When quite young, I spent lots of time with grandparents during the summers, and think there’s a special kind of bond that can pull the old and the young together. My sister and brother and I did help out a bit by sweeping, doing dishes, weeding or watering, and keeping my grandfather company while he ate lunch, which sometimes took a long time. Zoomy has lots of chores, and everyone in his household pulls together to get washing, gardening and cooking done. It’s not a bad thing to be needed.
Q: Are there any particular character(s) in the book that you identify with the most and why?
BB: Like Zoomy, I was closely connected to the grownups around me, but didn’t feel I could always see what was going on too clearly. Also, I had ‘aha’ moments, times when I suddenly glimpsed meaning or pattern, and felt I had understood something valuable—but didn’t know how to say it. That’s what I’m trying to do now!
Q: Talk about the ‘Gas Gazette’ entries… How did that come about and why did you decide to incorporate that in The Danger Box?
BB: The more I learned about this scientist’s personality and life, the more I wanted to share with kids. At first, I planted lots of the quotes and facts that are now in the Gas Gazette within the text itself, but that began to feel heavy. I wanted the man himself to become a necessary piece of the puzzle, and that’s when I turned him over to Zoomy and Lorrol, and he came alive as ‘Gas’, which was his teenage nickname. As soon as ‘Gas’ began to speak for himself, the Gas Gazettes just poured out…I could barely keep up with all that Gas wanted to say. It was an odd feeling, as if he’d stepped off the page.
Q: There seems to be a lot of interest in Charles Darwin recently. What is it about him that you think fascinates people to this day?
BB: Okay, so this mysterious scientist is Charles Darwin, yes! Well, on the occasion of his 200th birthday, in 2009, there were lots of exhibits and many wonderful books came out. I do think he’s fascinating in part because he’s such a hot-button figure, especially in the United States, where his theory of evolution still creates a huge amount of controversy.
Q: What do you hope readers will take away from The Danger Box?
BB: My hope is that kids from all kinds of backgrounds can be inspired by Darwin as a person, regardless of whether they or the people around them agree with his ideas about biology. Darwin was an amazing seeker of patterns, a huge dreamer and thinker—and yet he had so many qualities that most adults today would consider problems. The idea that so-called weaknesses can become strengths—that intrigues me. Are there also times when a physical disability can allow a person to accomplish things that others might not? I think this is an exciting question.
Q: What’s next for you?
BB: Hmm, I’m still at the stage of gathering ingredients and stirring them around. I’m not quite ready to talk about what I’m up to, but my research is taking me to unfamiliar and not-easy places. And, as always, I’m learning like mad. That is one of the great pleasures—I guess I like the ‘yikes, uh-oh’ feeling of this kind of exploration.
You could say I'm a danger box kind of girl
The Calder Game
Illustrated by Brett Helquist
In this third installment of Blue Balliet’s art mysteries, everything is hanging by a thread. Focusing on the artwork of Alexander Calder, particularly on his mobiles and stabiles, the mystery deals with the disappearance of two Calders—the protagonist Calder Pillay, and an Alexander Calder sculpture. Calder Pillay, a twelve-year-old from Chicago, is on a business trip with his father in a small town near Oxford. When he goes missing, his good friends Petra and Tommy fly to England to search for clues. But while Petra and Tommy are both friends of Calder’s, their relationship with one another is prickly. Certain that their expertise with words and symbols will aid them in finding their friend, it isn’t until they join forces that they start to make real progress, cementing their own friendship in the process. Like a Calder mobile, the pieces and players in Balliet’s story are in constant motion. Petra and Tommy become desperate to understand the message of the British graffiti artist Banksy, the motives of certain town residents, and the twists and turns in an old hedge maze. Also embedded in a story certain to inspire thinking and conversation about art—what it is, how it is or is not valued—are clever clue-containing illustrations by Brett Helquist. CCBC Category: Fiction for Children. 2008, Scholastic Press, 379 pages, $17.99. Ages 8-12. Reviewer: CCBC (Cooperative Children's Book Center Choices 2009).
Awards, Honors, Prizes:
Cybils, 2008 Nominee Middle Grade Novels United States
Illustrated by Brett Helquist
When Vermeer's priceless painting, "A Lady Writing," disappears in transit to an exhibit in Chicago, two of Ms. Hussey's sixth-grade students are ready to do whatever they can to recover "the lady." Calder Pillay and Petra Andalee have discovered, in a used bookstore in their neighborhood near the University of Chicago, a book that documents strange occurrences and unexplained coincidences. And isn't it a strange occurrence that Petra has been having vivid dreams about that very picture--before she even knew it existed? And isn't it an unexplained coincidence that Ms. Hussey has given the class an assignment to explore the significance of letters--just as the art thief has delivered secret, cryptic letters to three unidentified individuals? Balliett's engrossing and engaging debut novel sets two bright, quirky, imaginative children on the path to a series of discoveries about the transformative power of great art, and the mysterious, mystical connections that link all of reality. It's no objection to her story that everything in it turns on coincidence heaped upon coincidence, for that is its point: that nothing is coincidence, that all events are part of some yet unexplained pattern. Helquist's haunting illustrations spin further mystery by containing coded messages for the reader to decipher. This is an unusual story that should appeal to all the Calders and Petras who know--or hope--that there is more to the universe than what can be rationally explained. 2004, Scholastic, $16.95. Ages 8 to 12. Reviewer: Claudia Mills, Ph.D. (Children's Literature).
Awards, Honors, Prizes:
Agatha Awards, 2005 Winner Best Children's/Young Adult Novel United States
Book Sense Book of the Year Award, 2005 Winner Children's Literature United States
Borders Original Voices Award, 2004 Winner Intermediate/Young Adult United States
Chicago Tribune Prize for Young Adult Literature, 2004 Winner United States
Edgar Allan Poe Awards, 2005 Winner Best Juvenile Novel United States
Great Lakes Great Books Award, 2004 Winner Children's Chapter Book Michigan
Maine Student Book Award, 2006 4th Place Maine
Parents' Choice Award, 2004 Silver Fiction United States
Voice of Youth Award, 2005-2006 Third Place United States
The Danger Box
You can always count on Balliett to offer a story filled with intrigue, insight, and offbeat memorable characters. Zoomy Chamberlain, Pathologically Myopic, has lived with his grandparents in the small town of Three Oaks, Michigan since the day his deadbeat dad left him on the doorstep in a cat crate. With thick glasses the legally blind boy has no friends and lives a solitary life. He has a fetish about keeping lists in purple ink and he loves the Search Box of the Internet because it lets you become a spy. The day his alcoholic father, Buckeye, comes back into his life driving a stolen truck and leaving a special box with his grandfather Zoomy’s life become one fast track adventure. In the box Zoomy discovers a journal with tiny writing, lots of crossed out words, and lists. Through research on the Internet and with the help of a newfound friend Lorrel, almost as much a misfit as himself, Zoomy believes he is possession of one of Darwin’s journals from his journey on the Beagle. Things become complicated and dangerous when the owner of the stolen book arrives in town intent on getting the book back at all costs. The whole town gets in on the mystery when the two kids leave tantalizing clues in issues of the Gas Gazette hinting at the identity of Darwin. From the opening chapter with the its cryptic twelve word message the reader is pulled in and lead into a exquisite plot with twits and turns leading to a satisfying denouement. Baillett blends history, natural science, philosophy, and an intricate mystery into a powerful cohesive whole. In addition we meet and extraordinary gentle boy, a deep thinker and one wise beyond his years. Zoomy’s lesson that “ a discovery isn’t always and happy thing and a happy thing isn’t always a discovery” is a valuable one for us all. As the cover warns, “open with care” and be prepared to be wowed. 2010, Scholastic, Ages 10 to 12, $16.99. Reviewer: Beverley Fahey (Children's Literature).
The Wright 3
Illustrated by Brett Helquist
Readers will be happy to see the return of Blue Balliet’s memorable characters from her debut novel, Chasing Vermeer. Calder and Petra find architect Frank Lloyd Wright’s Robie House the source of their next great mystery and adventure. With the help of Tommy, an old classmate of Calder’s who moves back to Hyde Park, the threesome team sort through clues, coincidences, and conspiracies as they struggle to save the Robie House from demolition. Their struggle involves triangles, invisible men, codes from Frank Lloyd Wright himself, and ghost voices. As in Blue Balliet’s last book, this book will keep you reading caught up in the many strange and frightening circumstances facing the characters. Hard feelings between Petra and Tommy add to the tension of the story. The history of the Robie House, a masterpiece built for children with art, glass windows, and treasures to be found, is woven beautifully throughout the book. The Robie House’s past is haunting, full of tragedy and secrets, but Petra, Calder, and Tommy bring the Robie House into a new light. This second book with Petra and Calder, and the effort to save another important piece of artwork, will not disappoint readers. 2006, Scholastic Press, $16.99. Ages 8 to 12. Reviewer: Erin Pelletier (Children's Literature).
Awards, Honors, Prizes:
Great Lakes Great Books Award, 2006 Finalist United States
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