Introducing the novels of Blue Balliett
If you’re looking for an exciting new voice in children’s literature and a way to connect a variety of disciplines across the curriculum then explore the novels of Blue Balliett. Respecting children’s innate sense of wonder and mystery, Balliett’s books explore not just mysteries but friendship, art, and individuality. These fast-paced intellectual art mysteries ask readers to break codes, follow puzzles and crack open the links between widely disparate disciplines. Your students will love spending time with Calder, Petra and Tommy as they discover what happened to a priceless Vermeer painting, help save an historic Frank Lloyd Wright house, and find the connections to Calder sculptures that are strategically placed around the world. Newsweek called Balliett’s books “the da Vinci Code for tweens.” These bestselling books deserve a spot in your classroom library and your must-read list!
About the author:
Blue Balliett knew she wanted to be a writer when she was 8 years old, but before publishing her first book, she did a lot of other things. Growing up in Manhattan, she spent a lot of time wandering through museums, namely the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Frick Museum, both of which housed a few Vermeer paintings. After graduating from Brown University with a degree in art history, Blue worked on Nantucket Island, Massachusetts for a while, working as a cook, waitress, art gallery curator, and of course, writer. She now lives in Chicago with her family, busy creating more adventures for Petra, Tommy, and Calder.
About the illustrator:
Brett Helquist is the illustrator of many books for children, most well-known is his work with the Series of Unfortunate Events by Lemony Snicket. In the Balliett novels he has ingeniously hidden clues for the observant reader within his hallmark moody black and white illustrations. Though he grew up in the west, Brett now lives in New York City with his wife and daughter.
by Blue Balliett
Illustrated by Brett Helquist
About the book
When a book of unexplainable occurrences brigs Petra Andalee and Calder Pillay together, strange things start to happen: Seemingly unrelated events connect, an eccentric old woman seeks their company and an invaluable Vermeer painting disappears. Before they know it, the two find themselves at the center of an international art scandal, where no one—neighbors, parents, teachers—is spared from suspicion. As Petra and Calder are drawn clue by clue into a mysterious labyrinth, they must draw on their powers of intuition, their problem-solving skills, and their knowledge of Vermeer. Can they decipher a crime that has left even the FBI baffled?
A New York Times Bestseller
Book Sense Book of the Year
Edgar Award Winner
Booklist Top 10 Youth Mysteries
Chicago Tribune Prize for Young Adult Fiction
The author warns the reader before the opening of chapter one, “Don’t be fooled by ideas that seem, at first, to fit easily. Don’t be fooled by ideas that don’t seem to fit at all.” What do you think she means by this? Why do authors try to “fool” their readers at all? Do you think this is an indication that this book is a mystery? Is there anything in particular to keep in mind while reading a mystery compared to other types of novels?
Reading: Great readers make connections while they read in at least three important ways. They think about connections between the book they are reading and others they have already read (text to text connections) they think about how the book relates to their own personal life like a memory (text to self connections) or how it reminds the reader of something from the larger world like the news or something in their own neighborhood (text to world connections). As you read Chasing Vermeer create a chart like the one below and keep track of the connections you make. Keep the graphic organizer in your book as a bookmark and fill it out as you go along.
Inspired by Brett Helquist’s illustrations, draw a scene from the novel (with or without the main characters) and embed clues about the mystery. Frame them with black construction paper (or create fancy frames with interesting hand-drawn carvings on brown construction paper) to create a mystery gallery. Hang in the hallway or use as a bulletin board display.
Study the art of Johannes Vermeer (google Vermeer and WebMuseum to see most of his masterpieces online). Choose your favorite painting by Vermeer and explain in a journal entry why this piece is your favorite. Discuss the following elements of the piece you chose: the subject, the palette, the light, and texture.
Science and Art:
Calder loves the Vermeer painting The Geographer and the idea of mapmakers. “Mapmaking was a respected profession, something between a science and an art.” (p. 74) Create your own map of your own neighborhood using the science of geography and your own artistic ability. Make it a map that is useful to your and your family and be detailed!
Petra and Calder are interesting characters to follow along on their quest for the Vermeer. Brainstorm a list of qualities you might use in a character for a mystery of your own. Decide at least the following: what do they look like? What are their favorite hobbies? What is their best subject in school? What do they struggle with at school, home and with other people? What is their favorite food? Write a brief scene where your character discovers something has gone wrong.
The Wright 3
by Blue Balliett
About the book:
Supersleuths Petra and Calder, along with Calder’s old friend, Tomy, have been cryptically drawn into another mystery—this time involving a Frank Lloyd Wright architectural masterpiece, the Robie House.
When the kids’ sixth-grade class attempts to save the house from demolition, eerie events are reported: Voices float out from within, shadows shift behind the art-glass windows, even the roof moves. Soon Petra, Calder, and Tommy are involved in a frightening search for ghosts, hidden treasure, and a coded message left behind by Wright. Can they pursue justice and escape with their lives?
In the opening pages before chapter one the author reminds the reader, “Don’t forget that sometimes little things can appear big, and big things little— and that what you notice first isn’t always what you’re looking for.” Why is this important when reading a mystery? What else is important to remember when you’re reading a mystery that might not be true with other genres?
Good readers make predictions as they read a story. These predictions are made on facts and evidence and the understanding about what makes a good story. As you read The Wright 3 create a chart like the one below. Remember: predictions don’t have to be correct to be good predictions. In fact, reading would be pretty boring if we always knew what was going to happen next! Predictions are even more likely to be wrong when you’re reading a mystery!
Math + Art= Beauty
Design a piece of art based on the Fibonacci principle or the Golden Rectangle. You can be inspired by something from the natural world or use shapes and colors of your own imagination. It can be something that could be incorporated into a building, or not! Explain your process in a brief artist’s statement that you include with the work.
As a class, create a timeline of architectural styles through history. In your research compare the following elements: horizontal or vertical orientation, traditional materials used, balance and symmetry, cohesion with environment. (Add link to Frank Lloyd Wright Preservation Trust’s curriculum guide to The Wright 3).
What makes an artist? Create a biography of a person who is famous in a field that you are (for now, at least) most interested in pursuing. Would you consider this person an artist in their field? Find or create a portrait of them and then on an index card answer the following questions: Who is this person? What field are they famous for? When did they get started? Where can a person see their work? Why are they important?
Did you notice how awkward things felt between Calder, Petra and Tommy? One of the ways that Blue Balliett was able to accomplish this was through the dialogue among the three characters. Write a scene between three people where you reveal (remember to show, don’t tell) some underlying conflict. Examples you might explore: jealousy, annoyance, envy, etc.
To find great resources on Frank Lloyd Wright visit (google these sites and they should appear):
www.wrightplus.org (Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation) A wonderful 3D design studio!
www.pbs.org/flw/ (Frank Lloyd Wright by Ken Burns)
The Library of Congress American Memory Site (search for Robie House)
The Calder Game
by Blue Balliett
Illustrated by Brett Helquist
About the book:
Calder, Petra and Tommy are miserable with their new teacher, even a field trip to the museum to see Alexander Calder’s amazing sculptures do not cheer the trio. So when Calder gets the chance to visit England, Petra and Tommy are both are both envious of his escape and wonder how they will get along without him. But when Calder explores the fascinating mazes near Woodstock he suddenly disappears along with a sculpture by the artist Alexander Calder for whom he is named. Is there a connection? Petra and Tommy fly to England to best retrace the thoughts and actions of their closest friend but will they be able to find him before it’s too late?
Read the first chapter and then brainstorm a list of questions you hope the novel can answer. Remember that good readers always predict as they read but are not always right!
Reading: Understanding Character
Create a chart like the one below and as you read fill out each section. All characters have some type of problem and try to solve it. Use for discussion.
Study the life and work of Alexander Calder. (www.calder.org is a great place to start!)Answer the following questions in your research: How did he develop his unique style, what were his major influences? How has his work influenced other artists? What media did he use? Why?
Create a Calder-inspired mobile of your own. It can be a mobile made of anything you like but it should be thoughtful and balanced. In a brief artist’s statement included with your piece explain your process and what you learned as you worked on it.
Design your own maze using pentominoes. Then create a three-dimensional model of your design using any materials you like (clay, legos, etc.) Students could vote on the best design or try to combine designs to create a master maze.
Plan a trip to a Calder sculpture (or show) somewhere in the world. First, make a prediction as to what your budget should be for the trip. Then, figure out how much it would cost you to get to the piece and how much to stay nearby for at least a week. Don’t forget that you’ll need money for food and souvenirs! Compare your prediction with your actual projected costs after your research.
Setting is a really important aspect of all the adventures with Petra, Tommy and Calder. In The Calder Game the three sleuths travel to Woodstock, England for their adventure. Find a paragraph where Balliett describes the town and answer the following questions: page number, what is being described? What colors are used to describe it? How does the description make you feel? Why? Does it add suspense or tension to the scene? How?
Next, write a paragraph of your own which describes a particular setting. But before you get started make a conscious decision about what emotion you’d like to invoke in your reader (fear, hope, defeat, victory, etc.). Use Balliet’s work as a mentor text. Share with your peer editor.