First-time children’s fiction author Blue Balliett hits it big with a puzzling art mystery
Monday, October 25, 2004
Blue Balliett does her best work in the laundry room. On the second floor of her Hyde Park home, the room originally was a spare bedroom before the washer and dryer were moved in there to save Balliett time as she washed for her family of four.
But it was the bed, still tucked in the corner, where Balliett spent the last five years in stolen moments hunched over her laptop. The clacking of the keyboard over the hum of the washer meant mom was working on her novel again.
Juggling a classroom of third-graders and two kids of her own, Balliett managed to steal enough moments to publish Chasing Vermeer last May. In the six months since the children’s mystery hit the shelves, it has spent multiple weeks on the New York Times bestseller list and won the Chicago Tribune Young Adult Book Prize. The movie rights have been optioned to Brad Pitt’s production company at Warner Brothers. And those in the publishing industry agree that the book’s popularity is amazing. Ten foreign publishers bought book rights to Chasing Vermeer even before it was published.
“It’s been quite phenomenal,” says Ilene Cooper, children’s books editor at Booklist, the review journal of the American Library Association and a children’s author herself (see profile, page 39).
“We get into our office 5,000 children’s books a year and I don’t read every one, but I look at just about all of them,” says Cooper. “When I picked this up it was something that I had not read before and that’s probably what the publisher saw in it.”
Cooper says Balliett is the bestselling Midwest children’s author ever.
“The art mystery and the crisp intelligence of the prose immediately recall E.L. Konigsburg, but Balliett is an original,” according to the review in Publisher’s Weekly, which also calls the book “ingeniously plotted and lightly delivered.”
And that’s just what the adults think of it.
“I really liked Chasing Vermeer and I learned a lot about painting.” That’s from 12-year-old Ilse Miller of Oak Park. Her grandmother sent her a copy and she finished it in under a week. Many of her classmates have read it or are reading it now.
All of the copies at her local library are checked out and the waiting list is long.
Writing with the kids When she was 12, Balliett read a book with a similar buzz, E.L. Konigsburg’s Newbery Award winner From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. The year was 1967, and Balliett was an inquisitive girl growing up in New York. She loved the book’s blend of art, adventure and mystery.
“I would love to meet Konigsburg and say thank you,” Balliett says. Instead, she turned on a new generation to the book when she read it to her third-graders at the University of Chicago Laboratory School. She then assigned her students to write their own art mysteries.
Balliett always took part in class assignments and so she did this herself, producing the first strains of Chasing Vermeer.
At the Hyde Park haunt Medici’s, just blocks from her home, Balliett talks one crisp afternoon about writing her book, working full-time and raising two kids.
“If you’re a working mom, you’re already a multi-tasker,” she says.
A thin woman with untamed brown hair, she laughs easily and often, and is as comfortable to talk to as your best friend’s mom. (Blue, by the way, is a nickname. She was named Elizabeth after her mother, who couldn’t settle on a shortened version of that name to call her and instead picked Blue, as in the color of the sky.)
“I’ve always written, but written on the side,” she says. She calls writing “a comfortable part of her family.” Her father, Whitney Balliett, was a jazz critic for The New Yorker. Her mother published a childcare textbook. Following in the family footsteps, Balliett penned two books out of college based on oral histories she collected from Nantucket residents.
The hardest part about Chasing Vermeer was making the time to write. She tried it early in the morning before school, but found she was “turning on a faucet” that had to be quickly shut off to pack lunches and head to the classroom. So she switched to Saturdays when her husband, Bill Klein, an urban planner, could spend the morning with the kids and Balliett could write undisturbed.
“I worked on the book for a couple of years on Saturday mornings before realizing I wasn’t going to finish it unless I took a sabbatical,” she says. So she took a year off from teaching.
That February, with a draft completed, she called the publisher of her earlier books to ask if the company handled children’s fiction. It did. “By spring, I had this amazing array of offers to choose from—from five big publishing companies,” she says.
Picking a publisher wasn’t easy. Balliett knew her book was different from others on the market and she wanted someone who would “let the wilder ideas fly,” she says. “I really didn’t want to tame it down.”
She chose Scholastic for the editors, even though other publishers had offered her cushier two-book deals while Scholastic wanted to contract for only one. With the success of the first it has contracted for a second, and Balliett has traded in the classroom permanently for the laundry room.
Success’ key? Pull it together “Chasing Vermeer is kind of a quilt for me bringing together so many of my interests,” Balliett says.
First, there are the paintings of Johannes Vermeer. As an art history major at Brown University, Balliett studied the 17th century Dutch painter. But it was a 1995 show at the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. where she saw close-up the differences in his early and later works leading her to wonder, as art scholars have over the years, which paintings were done by Vermeer and which were painted by his students. Balliett introduced this real- life mystery to her characters.
Balliett’s own South Side neighborhood of Hyde Park was the natural setting for the book. She’s lived there since she and her husband moved to Chicago in 1991 with their now 19-year-old daughter and 18-year-old son. She’s enchanted by its spooky old buildings, interesting characters and lively atmosphere. It’s also the home of the Lab School, where Balliett taught on and off for the last 12 years.
Then there are the pentominoes that Calder, one of her characters, jingles in his pocket throughout the book. The 12 different shapes each correlate to a letter of the alphabet and, when arranged correctly, fit together into a rectangle. Balliett learned about them from Bob Strang, a math teacher at the Lab School, and had students such as Calder, who kept them nearby at all times as a thinking tool.
Her characters—which she calls “hybrids,” referring to their mixed ethnicities—are composites of memorable students and a little of her own kids.
Petra, with her “fierce triangle of hair,” is lost in her large, busy family. Calder, who, as his grandmother says, “breathes patterns the way others breathe air,” is aware he is one weird kid, but thinks Petra just might be stranger.
Both have a keen sense of observation and a willingness to trust their instincts. They become friends as they investigate the disappearance of Vermeer’s painting, “A Lady Writing.” Clues come to them unexpectedly through intuition and coincidence—ways most adults would brush off—and they must sift through the information to figure out which leads to follow.
“I think the book gave me an opportunity to let a lot of my excitement out,” Balliett says, adding teachers don’t always have an outlet for what they learn in the classroom. While her students studied spelling and grammar, she studied the students.
Balliett opened her classroom early in the morning for the kids who wanted to come in. She spent lunch and recess with them. “I heard kids talking about things when they didn’t think any adult was listening,” she says. And much of Petra and Calder’s dialogue reflects that.
Petra and Calder will finish their sixth-grade year in the book Balliett is working on now. She still works in the laundry room, but she’s added a desk. “I had to get rid of the bed because my back flipped out,” she says.
These days, instead of addressing a room of students, her book tours bring her to crowds of kids and adults alike. “I love talking to people about the ideas in the book,” she says,
As for her own kids, they are proud of their mom, but, as Balliett says, “Your mom is your mom. They’ve been amazed by the whole thing, but after awhile you get used to stuff.”
Balliett, while thrilled with the public response to Chasing Vermeer, is not yet used to the attention and opportunities it has opened up for her. “I never dreamed I would have this level of success,” she says. “I’m still trying to absorb it all.”
Rebecca Lomax is a Chicago writer and also the editorial design manager for Chicago Parent.