Out of the Wild Night by Blue Balliett Blue Balliett Pieces & Players Hold Fast by Blue Balliett The Danger Box by Blue Balliett The Calder Game by Blue Balliett The Wright 3 by Blue Balliett Chasing Vermeer by Blue Balliett
Nantucket Ghosts by Blue Balliett Blue Balliett Contact Blue Balliett Bio Blue Balliett Events Blue Balliett Awards & Reviews Blue Balliett Foreign Editions Blue Balliett Teacher Info Blue Balliett News


Friday, March 30, 2018

Juicy Secrets

In celebration of the release of my latest novel, Out of the Wild Night, I was interviewed by my amazing editor, David Levithan. David convinced me to share a few juicy secrets about writing, ghosts and Nantucket. Here goes:

David Levithan: Hello, Blue! I’m very thrilled to be talking to you today about your new novel, Out of the Wild Night. It’s been such a pleasure to work on it with you – you’ve written a ghost story that’s both heartbreaking and life-affirming . . . with no shortage of chills and spooks thrown in. Where did the idea for the book come from?

Blue Balliett: I first visited Nantucket in the summer at age eighteen, and fell madly in love with this magical place. Coming from Manhattan, I felt as though I’d stepped into a novel – all was mysterious, old, understated, steeped in stories, and made by hand. There were no skyscrapers, no wide sidewalks, and few right angles. As a shy kid who had always wanted to make books, I know I longed to write about Nantucket even then, but it wasn’t until I heard some stories about real ghosts a couple of years later that I felt I had a handle. The ghosts, oddly, gave me a reason to speak out and a place to hide as a young writer. Hiding behind ghosts! How funny -- I’ve never quite thought about my beginnings as a writer in that way.

DL: What has been your own experience with Nantucket ghosts?

BB: Hmm, well, I did have an odd experience on Nantucket that made me listen carefully to the strange experiences of others. Over a period of years, I then interviewed lots of people and recorded their stories. I learned that seeing a ghost wasn’t really an unusual happening on this island. I’ve always been a curious person, and of course the thought that this small community at sea was home both to the living and to an active group of the dead made my head buzz with excitement. Impossible! But not! Thinking about Nantucket’s ghosts has always made me happy if a little scared, as the idea of their existence breaks so many rules. I guess I’ve always been a what-if person.

DL: It’s always interesting to me how most ghost stories are at the same time universal and local. In talking to so many people about their Nantucket ghost stories, I’m curious if you found that there were any themes that kept recurring? How do you think the geography and history of Nantucket affects the ghosts that people experience there?

BB: When an old house changes hands and is renovated, many startled owners or workers report experiences they can’t easily ignore. A figure moving through a room or simply standing in a corner; knockings, latch doors that rattle, open on their own or slam, the distinct sound of footsteps or sometimes voices when there isn’t any explanation, objects hopping around on their own – these are the kinds of things that happen. Perhaps disturbances shouldn’t be surprising, as Nantucket’s old buildings were inhabited by a tough group who survived because they fought back. As people who lived off the sea and the land on a tiny island far from the mainland and far from outside help, they were resourceful. Their lives were mostly hardscrabble and their homes, although modest and practical, were their castles. Theirs, theirs, theirs!

DL: I’m struck, in thinking about Out of the Wild Night, about how writing about ghosts is very much writing about death, and writing about death becomes, in a very clear and moving way, a form of writing about life and what matters in life. Often, of course, there’s a fear of talking about such things with children, but I love how you embrace it and acknowledge life and death for what they are. Was there a certain approach you made, or certain things you kept in mind, knowing you were writing this story for a younger audience?

BB: I think I’m most myself when writing for kids, as I say what’s deep inside. As a young reader, I loved it when books spoke to me about the world without sugar-coating the hard things – like death or separation from someone you love -- so that is always in my mind. Life can be piercingly hard and painful, even at the youngest ages, and kids feel loss and hurt very deeply even when they don’t show it. I always hate to hear ‘kids bounce back,’ as it plays down the depth of their feelings.

Ghosts seem like a perfect vehicle for exploring the fact that life is full of death and vice-versa. The idea of ghosts gives me goosebumps but also makes me happy. I guess it’s reassuring. Their refusal to go away, not only on modern Nantucket but over many centuries and around the world, makes human life feel big, extraordinary, and filled with possibility. As an adult who’s still the kid I used to be, I love that feeling.

DL: As you are well aware, I love the character of Mary, the town crier who has one foot in the past and one foot in the present. What was it like to put on her shoes and see the story through her eyes?

BB: Amazing, truly. My character Mary is based on a real woman with that name who lived on Nantucket. I have a photograph of her, taken sometime in the 1880s. When I stepped into her shoes, imagining what it might be like to be the fierce, slightly grim person in this image, I felt like she and I then made this story happen together. She truly came to life in my head. It was a strange feeling, as if she pulled me into her world as I pulled her into mine.

DL: Do you think you’d enjoy being a town crier? In a way, is that what novelists do?

BB: Yes, I love that idea, that we scribblers are really town criers! Mary was a shy person before she found herself needing to become brave enough, after death, to become a ghostly town crier, ringing her bell and shouting through her horn. The idea of doing something so loud makes me cringe and I know Mary was cringing too, at least at first. . . .

DL: One of the themes that runs through all your books is the importance of home. Can you talk a little about why this speaks to you (and readers) so strongly, and how it appears in Out of the Wild Night?

BB: Home can be any place and any size, but it’s where all of us hope to find peace and safety, right? If home is a happy place, it’s where you relax, become invisible to the rest of the world and allow yourself to dream. I’m well aware of how painful it is for a child to feel home changing because of adult distress, or even to go back and forth between homes if your parents have parted ways, which was my experience. As an adult living in Chicago, I’ve spent time in many homeless shelters and with people who’ve lived for years without a home. I never take the gift and privacy of a home base for granted, and my wish is that none of us ever do.

It seems logical that a person’s spirit might linger in a home after they’re no longer alive -- a spooky thought, but it makes sense to me that some part of us saturates our surroundings, and I love the thought that ghosts might feel inspired to hang around and influence those who are still living.

DL: And in Out of the Wild Night, the homes aren’t just a touchstone for the individuals’ memories – they’re also repositories of the community’s history. And yet . . . the homes are threatened by people who show no regard for this history. The word preservation takes on a soul here that goes well beyond architecture. I’d love for you to tell us a little about where this strand of the story came from, and what you’d love young readers to take away from it.

BB: When I first saw Nantucket, I was bowled over by the old, intact nature of so many of the island’s seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth century wooden houses. The past was still here! For centuries, owners preserved these houses, only repairing what was needed. The oldest of these structures are sturdy, having been built with wood that remains sound – wide boards from first-growth trees or sometimes from shipwrecks, and a history of being lived in and loved by people who hated waste. Whether you’re a visitor or year-round Island resident, until recently there was a general sense of feeling lucky to be able to experience a place that belonged so clearly to another time.

Sadly, the last fifteen years or so have brought a wave of owners who are less interested in these houses as treasures from another time, and want the interiors to look modern and serve twenty- first century needs. The exteriors of Nantucket’s old structures are protected by local and federal rules on historic preservation, but the insides are not. Many of these Quaker homes, filled with history and unique detail, have been gutted. Doors, mantels, windows and floors are taken to the dump. Latch fittings and nails made by a blacksmith are tossed. The destruction of so much that has been valued and passed down is heartbreaking to those of us who feel these handmade houses have a life of their own. And if we feel this way, imagine how a ghost might feel. . . .

There are old, under-appreciated buildings in every community across every country in the world, and my hope is that the kids who read Out of the Wild Night will perhaps see these creaky structures in a fresh way. All are filled with layers of living. All tell stories, as Nantucket’s old homes do, to any who look closely and imagine. New isn’t always better. It’s often a lot less interesting, and besides -- there is wisdom in reusing and restoring old spaces. Any ghost can tell you that.

DL: Another theme that you return to often is the power of curiosity. I think it’s safe to say that you write some of the least passive characters in children’s literature – they aren’t just investigating mysteries, but they are also investigating the quirks and wonders of life itself. When many mysteries use the plot an end in itself, you always use the plot as a springboard for wider examinations. What compels you to do this? Do you always know what your characters will discover, or do you find yourself discovering alongside them as you write?

BB: I love open doors that invite you in and narrow paths that twist out of sight. I love books that propel the reader forward, allowing them to see the familiar world in new ways. For whatever reasons, I’ve always wanted to push the limits of what’s possible in everyday life, even as a kid. I remember hanging by my knees from two rings, outside, at about age seven. I thought, Wow, if I pull my legs out really fast, I’ll be able to flip around and land on my feet in the dirt! Even if most kids can’t do that! I decided to try. Of course, I ended up landing right on my head. The shock of that clonk is still with me (hopefully not in more ways than one!).

As a kid, I was thrilled by the feeling of looking into real-world mysteries, and dreaming that I might be the one to figure them out. As a parent and then as a classroom teacher, I loved watching kids’ faces as they thought about the same thing. Maybe it’s just about succeeding where adults have failed . . . . It’s delicious to feel that all things in this miraculous world of ours are possible, if not likely – and that any of us can perhaps stretch the rules, even of life and death.

My characters most definitely have taken me along on their adventures, surprising and educating me – perhaps the characters in Out of the Wild Night most of all. Before Mary Chase came along, I would never have believed that a ghost could tell such a story.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

The Bounce of a Book

If a writer is lucky enough to see their work used as a diving board or a trampoline, that, I think, is a moment to celebrate. Look!  A step, a pause for concentration and now a jump…
It’s all about the bounce.
Pieces and Players is my sixth novel, and I’ve been lucky enough to be a witness to some of the independent life of my books.  When I visit schools, I get glimpses of projects and investigations built on my mysteries.  This is a huge treat.  How exciting is it to actually see your book as a bridge between imaginations -- yours and someone else’s, someone you don’t even know? 
Once a teacher, librarian or kid takes a bounce on a book, the story begins to stretch and breathe.  A breeze enters the room; characters look around.  The book becomes unpredictable, even dangerous – how cool is that?  It’s certainly no longer simply written or spoken words.  Has the story become a tool, a piece of equipment, or perhaps an interactive form of art?  What a dream for a writer, being able to observe some of this leap-and-fly magic!  A bounce on some detail, and whoosh  off these readers go in surprising directions.   What a thrill to see!
All of us readers have taken a bounce on a book, but the writer is rarely a direct witness.   Writing for kids and then absorbing what they’ve taken away from the page is truly an amazing experience.  When making my stories theirs, kids give me so much.  First, they show what they feel.  Next, I hear what they’d like me to tackle and which characters should be involved.  They suggest what I might do differently or what they want to see again.  I love to hear and share their ideas. Writing is a solitary activity, but the bounce of a book is not.
Of course, getting the thousands of letters I’ve gotten over the years from kids has been miraculous, and a different kind of very special experience.  I’ll never take that for granted, and the thoughtfulness of the written word can’t be topped.  I’ve opened and read all of these letters in my kitchen and often shared them with family or friends.  I keep them in boxes.  Yes, really, every one!  Their images and sparkle stay with me.  These are wonderful and often deeply moving bounces, but a different kind of experience from being physically in the same room.
Here are some bounce pics from the past couple of months.
A design project inspired by The Wright 3
A map for Pieces and Players
Kids role-playing Tommy, Calder, Petra, Zoomy, and Early--the panel takes questions from the class
A life-size Mrs. Sharpe

An illustrated excerpt
Humpty Dumpty pops out of Pieces and Players
Another exerpt

Monday, April 13, 2015

Curiosity, Bam!

I’ve written six mysteries for kids, and curiosity is at the heart of every single one.  In fact, curiosity has shaped my life.  Curiosity is powerful.
What is it that’s so--I don’t know--energizing about tackling a problem or question that doesn’t yet have a solution or answer?  I’ve always noticed that kids sit up when asked what they really think about something that really needs some attention. At those moments, their brains are all there.  Maybe it’s a bit like what happens when your cat is staring off into space, clearly a little bored, and a bug skitters by.  Bam!  The cat is all eyes and ears, all action.  Every muscle in his body says, ‘Got it!  I can do this!  Crunch!’
Curiosity leads me to Chicago's Bean
As a kid, I loved the feeling of being curious, and invented mysterious situations out of my everyday world.  I read every mystery that I could get my hands on.  As a grownup, I still love reading a book that demands every ounce of my attention and makes me need to know what’s on the next page.  These are the stories I try to write. I want kids to share my love of being curious. Being curious can lead to a life of adventure and intrigue—a life in which you use your mind as a tool for digging.  Digging, sorting and finding.
I hope that after reading Pieces and Players kids will look around their world and say, ‘Bam!  I can do that!’  When I talk about the unsolved art heist that drove me to write this new book and the very real stolen art that keeps calling out to be rescued, kids get very excited.  Here is a problem that needs desperately to be solved.
Wouldn’t it be something if a reader of Pieces and Players were to run across one of the missing works of art? 
Curiosity is a driving force, and not to be underestimated.  Bam!

Sunday, August 31, 2014

The Scrabble and Scratch of It All

A lot of writers I know bounce between two worlds.  I’m no different.
Most writers are introverts by nature, wouldn’t you say?  We make forays into the real world, look around with delight and excitement, but then retreat to our hidey-holes to work. 
It’s in our writing spaces that we spend huge amounts of time dreaming, digesting and then translating.  We change ideas into symbols.  Then we undo, destroy and rework lots of what we just did.  Scratch, scrabble, gnaw, pause, erase, pause, write, pause, erase again; we are creatures who dig into and chew our way through life.  We stop answering the phone.  We do everything but disappear into our pages.
For me at least, that’s one side of how I live.  The other side loves to be out there in the world and has lots to say about it.  The other side gets inspired by my contact with kids, by the way they see, and by hearing from readers of all ages.  And now that I’ve just finished my sixth mystery, I am traveling and talking quite a bit.  In order to do this right, I sharpen my thinking in various directions, shaping it to fit the audience.  If talking with kids only, I try to reveal how I made these books and to share the mess, worry and thrill of it all.  If speaking at a convention or book festival, I may also be focusing on common core issues, fiction versus nonfiction in our schools, literacy, libraries, and the balance between electronic media and books. 
Django hopes to go along
This process of gathering my thoughts for a talk is always both centering and energizing.  It forces me to roll the cat hair off my clothes, shove whatever I’ve been working on to one side and come up for fresh air, and I always enjoy my interaction with the professionals and kids that I meet.  Always.  I wonder, at these times, why I don’t say Yes to more.
And then suddenly I’m back home, jiggety-jig, and as soon as my suitcase is unpacked, zing!  I’m like a magnet in front of steel.  I’m back glued to my chair in the laundry room, typing or scribbling away.  And as I’m one who clearly loves to make books, almost everything I do in my workspace centers on that.  It’s as if the everyday world fades and vanishes when I step into my hidey-hole. 
It’s a bit rubber-band-like, this stretch-snap-stretch that defines my real world vs. my writing world. 
I think I like this blog business – I’m in the laundry room, but also here with you.  I’ll have to remember that this is possible.  But wait – hold on a moment while I scribble down an idea that just occurred, one to go in the next book!  Just a moment…

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Pieces and Players

I’m thrilled to report I’ve been deep in criminal activity.
Remember Calder, Petra and Tommy – my characters in Chasing Vermeer, The Wright 3 and The Calder Game?  Well, they’re ba-a-a-ack!  (Tommy insists on an ominous ta-TAH flourish here.)  And this time, they’re together in the same book with Zoomy, from The Danger Box, and Early, from Hold Fast.  They’re all in my new mystery, Pieces and Players, which will be out April 1, 2015.
It might be more accurate to say I’m in their mystery.  Everyone hears writers talk about characters ‘coming alive’ in the writing process, surprising them with rogue actions or unexpected acts of kindness.  Well.  Ever since the whisper of this five-some idea entered my head several years ago, these five voices have grown slowly louder and louder.  They got older, stronger and bossier – until they finally managed to take over. 
Help!  I muttered to myself as I began to scribble notes.  Can I keep up with these guys? 
Soon my laundry room, where I write, was a swirl of activity, and dangerously crowded; five thirteen year-olds jostled for position, surrounded by thirteen stolen works of art, a handful of suspicious adults, a sudden death, skin issues and body odor… and this is a small room.  I stopped turning on the washing machine and dryer while working; it was already far too noisy in there.  What was happening?  Yikes!  At times I felt I might fall to the floor, panting for breath, and my characters might run right over me, leaving a sneaker print on my nose and a Post-It next to it. 
Brett Helquist's illustration of Tommy, Zoomy, Early, Calder, and Petra

And then one morning I sat down with my coffee, pushed shut the laundry room door, and the five looked calmly at me.  It was clear that I was no longer in charge.  Someone had lost and someone had won.  These kids had made their unwieldy group match an unwieldy crime – a heartbreakingly true art crime that really does need to be solved – and even left some room for Mother Goose, dilly beans, and a hairy cat whose name is Rat-a-tat.  After circling around each other and me for months, the five started on a dangerous adventure. Soon my characters and I were listening to the stolen art, and -- was the art also listening?  And could that have been a ghost? 
Ms. Hussey and Mrs. Sharpe are back, along with a number of rich folks with wrinkly skin and a gorgeous old museum.  And although the action happens all over the city of Chicago in this story, my laundry room, in fact, still feels crowded. 
I’ve handed in my final copy edit, guys, and Brett Helquist has done the artwork, so quiet down!  Huh?  What are you saying? 
Oh, that!  Okay, I’ll share.  Here’s what I believe:  If anyone can get to the bottom of the biggest art heist in United States history, the one at the heart of this mystery, it’s Tommy, Calder, Petra, Early and Zoomy. 
Thirteen pieces.  Thirteen players.  And yes, a writer who feels lucky she was along for the ride.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Clicks from the Hold Fast Train

I began speaking and traveling, talking about Hold Fast, in January of 2013.  Events were added to events as the months rolled on.   By June, the Hold Fast train -- as everyone at Scholastic began to call it -- had chugged into over seventeen cities;  I'd been from Chicago to Houston, Dallas, Washington, D.C., New York City, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Milwaukee, St. Louis, Nashville and a number of cities closer to home, like Naperville and Woodstock and Kankakee and North Utica.

This blur of planes, cars and hotels came together into an amazing experience, as I was able to see Hold Fast welcomed by thousands of kids of many backgrounds and ages, libraries, social service agencies, urban planners, teachers, and teachers of teachers.  I'd never expected such a wild reception for this unusual story.  Hold Fast even hit the New York Times bestseller list in May.

Here are some clicks:

A cake in Houston

Wonderful St. Louis

Hold Fast meets Chasing Vermeer tattoos, New York.

Sizzling day at LA Times Festival of Books

Colorful Palo Alto, California

Closing Keynote, American Planning Association
National Planning Conference, Chicago

Room full of urban and regional planners

Django is not pleased that I'm on the road

"Don't you dare pick up this pen!" 

Visiting Hicklebee's Books, San Jose

Signing books at Hicklebee's . . .

and then the wall

Hold Fast and I have had a winter and spring to remember.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Three Cheers for E.L.K. (1930 - 2013)

E. L. Konigsburg was a very special person in my life.  Sadly, I never met her, but it feels as though I’d known her forever.  I was twelve years old when my mother gave me The Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler for my birthday.  Quite honestly, it blew my mind: it took place in a museum I knew, not too far from where I was growing up in New York City; it had big, exciting ideas about real art; it had independent characters who were treated as though they knew how to think, and think they did.  I read that book again.  And later, as a parent and a teacher, again.  And again.
I do think that book changed my life.   It changed how I thought about the world around me.
I might not have gotten an art history degree if not for The Mixed-Up Files; I might never have written Chasing Vermeer.  Ever since my first mystery came out in 2004, I’ve talked about how much Konigsburg’s work has meant to me, and about how instrumental what you read as a kid can be in determining who you become.  I do believe that the words and stories absorbed early in life can matter deeply.  
Yesterday Hold Fast, my fifth mystery, hit the New York Times bestseller list.  Would it be there without E. L. Konigsburg?  Would I be writing today if not for The Mixed-Up Files?  A great many things might not have happened.
Thank you, Mrs. Konigsburg, for all you’ve given me and generations of other devoted fans.  A book that gives you yourself, no matter who you are, is truly something.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Angels and Heroes in Plain Sight

       This is a shout-out for the angels and heroes of the book world.  All who publish books know who these bigger-than-life folks are.  They know who they are.  But can the reading public identify these Clark Kents?  (Excuse the retro reference, but I always liked his glasses and the nonchalant way he whipped them off.  I think his specs may be back in style.)

       Just in case, here goes:  these heroes and angels are the people in the independent bookstores around the U.S., and the librarians in our public libraries and schools.  They are angels because they are champions of the art of reading; they recommend, they guide, they educate without demanding.  Most do a heroic amount of heavy lifting.  Witness the owners of independent bookstores, who always have strong backs.  They lug books into schools while ferrying the visiting author, they even lug books to libraries, through many a dark and stormy night, or at the very least through dinnertime…  they don’t complain.  They often supply delicious cookies.  

Arlene Lynes, owner of Read Between the Lynes, 
Woodstock, Illinois.  (photo by Jack Bechaud)
       The librarians read tirelessly.  They sift and sort.  They answer questions from all ages and with great patience.  They take care of authors and make libraries the hands-down heart of a school or a community.  Like the indie booksellers, they work overtime. They change lives by supplying the just-right book at the just-right time; they bear witness to the power of the written word. 
       Angels.  Heroes.  I am currently doing a great deal of travel for Hold Fast, and am reminded, just about daily, of how great these people really are.  They have wings and super-powers. 
       Don’t be fooled – they’re hiding in plain sight. 

Monday, March 25, 2013

Holding on for Hold Fast

These days, I’m holding on for Hold Fast; it’s a traveling spring.  Over the past few weeks, I’ve visited many schools in many places and will continue to travel through April.  I am at my most relaxed when with kids, and I have been hearing many surprising, excellent and touching questions.  In addition, I’ve heard or read heart-warming, startlingly wonderful comments from sources of all ages, and at all times of day -- in schools, bookstores and library talks, in a flow of reviews, in outspoken and beautifully-written online blogs. 
I’m not good at taking pictures at each school I visit – I wish I were.  I’m all in the moment, the moment is over, I’m back in a car, and whoosh!  Life goes on.   However, last week I was in a public school near downtown St. Louis that was so unusual that I need to share some of what I saw.  There is much in the news these days about public schools and what’s wrong with them.  Sometimes there is lots right.

I walked into the Maplewood Richmond Heights Elementary School, in Richmond Heights, Missouri, and stopped.  What – a Banksy-inspired painting?  A close-to-Lichtenstein?  An unusual piece of art designed to honor and support a center for homeless boys?

This is a school with social justice overtones that structures projects around a theme each year, supporting their budget with grants and the input of local artists.  This year, the theme was exploring the idea and metaphor of ‘School as Museum’, and the kids had painted, built, researched and designed some amazing exhibits.  The topics were issues they felt needed some museum attention, like bullying; the environment; drug use in neighborhoods; poverty in the world around us. Kids were obviously building and documenting knowledge using real-world issues and problems, and I could see that Ms. Hussey and I, if we’d been invited to teach there, could have jumped right in. 
In this photo, a group of sixth graders pose in front of an exhibit which studies both interrelated facts and some proposed solutions to poverty and homelessness. 
I was on a schedule and couldn’t stay long, but the whiff of powerful yet heartfelt critical thinking that I witnessed there is still with me.  After my talk, I grabbed my phone and took these pictures.  For anyone wanting to get a close look at an awesome constructivist curriculum in a public school setting, I say, Go to St. Louis!  Visit the MRH kids, as they call themselves.  Hold fast for some powerful learning. 
And, by the way, the kids seemed pretty excited about Hold Fast, which makes me happy.