Cousins of Clouds

Cousins of Clouds
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Monday, January 11, 2010

Novels of Blue Balliett


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.

Chasing Vermeer
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?
Discussion Guide:
  1. How do you think the three deliveries will be joined by the end of the book? How do the recipients of the letter feel about it? What would you do if you received it?
  2. Describe Petra, Calder and Ms. Hussey. How are they alike? How are they different? Would you like to be in Ms. Hussey’s class or not? Why?
  3. What do you think of Picasso’s quote about art: “Art is a lie, but a lie that tells the truth.”  Or do you prefer Calder’s version: “Art is the truth that tells a lie.”  Do the assignment Ms. Hussey gives her class, that is, find a piece of art in your own home. Then discuss the items the following day.
  4. Would you like to read Lo! by Fort? Do you agree that, “ Depending on how you looked at things, your world could change completely.” (p.45) How can we learn to look at things with fresh eyes? Find something extraordinary in your own neighborhood or home.
  5. Tommy and Calder communicate through their own secret code. Why do you think they decide to use this instead of just writing a traditional letter?  Write a letter to a friend using Calder’s code. Can you create a new code?
  6. Petra and Calder are both intrigued by the number of seeming coincidences that lead them on their quest. Make a map of the connections they make between people, events, and ideas. Do you believe things are more connected than they seem? Do you believe in the idea that, “there are no coincidences?
  7. Make a list of everything you’ve discovered about Petra and Calder just like they create one about what they learned about Vermeer. Add to the list as you read the novel. Think about the ways a reader comes to know a character: what they say, what they do, what they think or feel, and how other character’s see them.
  8. What does the thief of “A Lady Writing” say is the reason for the robbery? The thief urges people to, “…trust your own instincts. Do not be afraid to go against what you were taught, or what you were told to see or believe.” Are kids or adults better at going against the obvious? Why? Do you think the thief was justified to steal the painting or not? Why? Is it ever right to do something wrong? If so, when?
  9. Petra and Calder admire Fort because he is “a fearless thinker.” Are Petra and Calder fearless thinkers as well? Are you? How do you think you develop this skill? Does your school prepare you to be a fearless thinker or not? What makes you say this? Do you think this is what Mrs. Sharpe admires in the kids? Why?
  10.  Suspicion is a major part of the novel. Who do the kids suspect of being involved in the crime? Why? How do they prove or disprove their suspicions? Have you ever had misguided notions about someone? How did you resolve them?
  11. What steps did Calder and Petra take to solve the mystery? What guided them the most in their quest? Would you have taken similar risks? How did Petra and Calder change by the end of the novel? What makes a character change?
  12. Did you enjoy trying to decode the messages and look for the hidden clues in Brett Helquist’s illustrations?

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.

Text to Text Connections
Text to Self Connections
Text to World Connections
Ex: Lo! reminds Petra to take notice of what is around her each day.
Petra created a costume from a dream. I never buy a costume either….
Vermeer’s painting A LADY WRITING is all over the news

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.

Art History:
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?

Discussion Questions:
  1. Describe Petra, Calder, Tommy and Ms. Hussey. What are the most important things to know about them?  Who would you most like to be friends with? Why?
  2. Why is Ms. Hussey so upset about the Robie House? How do the kids show their feelings about it to the outside world? Will the comparison between the arts work? Do you think they are similar or not? Why? Can a group of children make a difference about important things in their world? What makes you think so or not?
  3. Explain what Tommy finds at the Robie House. Do you think he should keep it or not? Why? As a reader, how do you know when something small like this might become important to the story? Can you always tell the difference between a red herring and a real clue?
  4. How does the fish Tommy found represent everything he’s ever wanted?  Tommy questions whether the Robie House is more important than his own families’ needs. Which one do you think is most important? Why? Tommy ends up lying to his friends over his find. Is he justified or not? What is the effect of this decision?
  5. Identify the reasons why Petra, Tommy and Calder are having a difficult time with each other. Who do you feel most compassionate for? Why? Is a group of three more difficult to get along than even numbers? How does their friendship change over the course of the novel?
  6. What is the history of the Robie House? Do you think it is important to save it? Are there historical buildings in your own neighborhood or town that you think should be saved? Why? Do you know (or can you find out) the history of your own home?
  7. What connections do the kids make between Frank Lloyd Wright (and the Robie House) and the Invisible Man, Fibonacci numbers and the movie The Rear Window? Can you make any connections between your own life and these topics? Are kids more attuned to connections than adults or not? What makes you think this?
  8. Calder uses pentominoes to think about things, turn ideas over in his mind. Petra uses her notebook and words. What does Tommy use? What do you? How would you feel if, like Petra, you lost some important pieces of your work (art, a design, a story)?
  9. Explain, in your own words, what the Fibonacci sequence of numbers does. Where is this often found in nature? At the end of the book where do they find the Fibonacci sequence? Do you think Wright did this intentionally or not? Do you think it added to the pleasing quality of his designs?
  10. Ms. Hussey and Mrs. Sharpe play an important role of helping the kids unravel the mystery. Create a list of facts or ideas that the two women aide the kids in learning. Who do you think is more important? Why? Do you think kids in Ms. Hussey’s classroom learn more than kids in traditional classrooms or not? Defend your answer.
  11.  What risks do the kids take to save the Robie House? Do you think they made wise or foolish decisions? What was the result of their discovery? How was Tommy rewarded for doing the “Wright” thing?  In the end, was their risk worth the reward or not? If someone had gotten seriously injured by the culprits (or the process) would they still have been justified? Why or why not?
  12. Review the Wright Sandwich Code and the hidden codes inside Brett Helquist’s illustrations. What do these elements add to the book? Can you develop a code with your own closest friends? How would you use it? Do you think it saved The Wright 3’s life?

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!
Make a Prediction

Facts, opinions, ideas from characters, examples, story knowledge, etc. Explain what make you believe this.

Chapter One:

I think the mason who got hurt will be important to solving the mystery.

Because first chapters are always important in a story.

Because it was weird how the building seemed to push him off it.

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).
Art history:
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.
Internet Resources:
To find great resources on Frank Lloyd Wright visit (google these sites and they should appear):  (Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation) A wonderful 3D design studio!   (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!

Discussion guide:
  1. The friendship between Petra, Tommy, and Calder has always been unbalanced. Why is this?  Can groups of three be easy friends or is someone always odd man out?
  2. Explore the art of Alexander Calder for yourself. How do they make you feel? How do the main characters in the book feel about Calder’s art? With whom do you feel the most similar reaction? Why? Do you think art can change a person? How?
  3. How does the trip to the museum show the contrast between the kids’ previous teacher, Ms. Hussey, to their new teacher, Ms. Button? How do you survive a year of school with a teacher who is difficult?
  4. Ms. Hussey describes Calder’s art as shouting, “HERE! NOW! and reminds you that each second of your life holds its own world of experience.” (p. 42) What experiences most shape the lives of Petra, Tommy and Calder? What is your own HERE! and NOW!?
  5. Explain the town of Woodstock’s reaction to the Calder sculpture that they received as a gift. Is it happily installed or has it caused controversy? Why? How can art stir trouble? Would art that had no reaction be better than art that caused strong emotions? Why or why not?
  6. What are the five most interesting facts you learned about Woodstock and England while reading the novel? What would someone from England find fascinating about your town?  Would you like to travel? What would you want to go see? Would you, like Calder, have difficulty being an outsider for a while? How long would it take someone to belong in your town?
  7.  In most mysteries chapters are left with cliff hangers. Which chapters do you find are written with this technique? What can you learn about your own writing from studying Balliet’s prose?
  8. Petra and Tommy are called into help with the investigation. What can they bring that no one else could? Who would your parents call to best get ideas about you? What might they be surprised to learn? How do Tommy and Petra help uncover the truth?
  9. What adds to the suspense that Calder could’ve fallen into the hands of people with bad intentions? What clues are given to his whereabouts? Did you believe he was in danger or simply on an adventure? Why?
  10. Although Tommy finds something very important he is willing to give it back to make an important wish. Who else makes wishes? What it the most important wish you have ever made? Do you believe in wishes or prayers? Why or why not?
  11.  Explain what happened to both Calder and the Calder sculpture. Who were the most important players in both disappearances? Describe Calder Pillay’s ordeal. How did he survive it? Did the sculpture survive too?
  12. Balliett changes point of view often in the story. First, we follow Calder along his adventure and then it switches to Petra and Tommy. Why do you think she decided to write it this way? What does it add to the story?  Who do you think changes most over the course of the novel? Why?

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.
Character Name:
Main Conflict:

Art History:
Study the life and work of Alexander Calder. ( 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.