Doing What's Wright

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Blue Balliett's best ideas come from third-graders.

She wrote her first novel, "Chasing Vermeer," because, as a teacher in Chicago, she couldn't find a really good book to share with her students.

Her characters -- Calder, Petra and Tommy -- daydream, solve mysteries and sort out personal problems with the help of pentominoes, five-sided math puzzle pieces that her 8-year-old students used. For dialogue, she uses the chatter of kids overheard during her years of playground and lunchroom duty.

But there's nothing childish about Balliett's books, which involve secret codes, great works of art in jeopardy and the difficulties of being a kid.

Balliett knows better than to talk down to kids. "[They] are big thinkers. It's such a privilege as a teacher to be exposed to such brains," she told KidsPost's Tracy Grant during an interview about her new book, "The Wright 3." She also spoke about dirty laundry, pepperoni pizza and her unusual name.

"The Wright 3" is about three sixth-grade friends trying to save a house by the famous architect Frank Lloyd Wright, but it's also about how hard it is for three people to be equal friends. How are those two parts of the story related?

"As I put the book together, it's hard for me to remember what came first. I know I was thinking about all the triangles [that Wright used] in the Robie House. Some people say that the triangle is the strongest shape in geometry.

"But the number three is hard -- for kids and adults. It's very hard for three people to communicate equally. So I tried to weave that painful, complicated piece of these three characters in with the mystery of the architecture of the house."

Do you really write in your laundry room?

"Yes. It was the one place in the house where nobody wanted to come and hang out with me. So I'm in here with the laundry. One downside is that when I started to write, I stopped sorting laundry. There's always something that's piled up."

Is Blue your real name?

"It's Elizabeth on my birth certificate, but my mother gave me the nickname after the color of the sky. It stuck. It's the only name I've ever had. I haven't minded it. I deliberately gave Calder and Petra names that are a little different. I think that's fun for a child."

What advice do you have for kids who want to be writers?

"I decided I would be a writer by the time I was 8, but I didn't write 'Vermeer' until I was in my forties. You have to be patient with yourself. Writing is an adventure.

"You have to be able to write your ideas down very quickly. The end of 'Chasing Vermeer' was written on a piece of cardboard from a pair of boxer shorts that I had bought for my son. One cold winter night I was laying in bed and suddenly I thought, 'Oh, I know what I want to do' [with the end of the book]. It was dark; my husband was asleep; I had a pen but no paper. Then I pulled this piece of cardboard out of the trash can and just started writing.

"I still have that piece of cardboard. I show it to kids so they'll know that writing is very messy."

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