Best-selling children's mystery writer advises budding wordsmiths

Best-selling children's mystery writer advises budding wordsmiths

CHAMPAIGN — If an 8-year-old wants to be a professional writer someday, one best-selling author's advice: Get a notebook and start recording ideas.

Blue Balliett, best-selling author of children's mysteries "Chasing Vermeer," "The Wright 3," "The Calder Game" and "The Danger Box," spoke to lots of local students Friday, including fourth-graders at Champaign's Robeson Elementary.

Balliett showed the students photos of scribbled ideas in her own notebooks, as well as images of her somewhat-messy workspaces and manuscripts covered in editing notes. She told them she knew from age 8 that she wanted to be a published writer, and even told them that she'd cut out quotations praising a paperback from its cover and attached them to her own notebook. She also added a little biography of herself, she told them.

"I wanted to see a book that said 'Blue Balliett' on the cover," she said.

Balliett — pronounced "bal-E-et" — also talked about her own life, about how living in the Hyde Park neighborhood of Chicago and teaching at the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools for 10 years influenced her books.

The first three include the same characters, who Balliett told Robeson students are based on kids she knew when she was a classroom teacher.

The places in those books are all based on real places, including Harper Avenue, where the characters live. The teacher in those books is based on Balliett as a teacher, and she told the students she never intended them for publication.

Instead, she wrote them for her students over five years, which is why they're packed with so many ideas.

Balliett's fourth children's book, "The Danger Box," is about a legally blind 12-year-old living in a tiny town in Michigan who is trying to find a stolen notebook written by what she told students was an important thinker whose name they'd all recognize.

Balliett told the students about her new book, "Hold Fast," which will come out in March.

It's the story of children who have lost their homes in the economic crisis and are living in shelters in Chicago. The story also deals with stolen diamonds and a family's mystery.

"This was an exciting book to write," Balliett said, and explained that the title is a reference to a Langston Hughes poem with the first line, "Hold Fast to Dreams."

Students at Robeson, as well as those at Champaign's South Side Elementary and Urbana's Wiley Elementary, read "Chasing Vermeer" before spending a week on a field trip at the Krannert Art Museum's Week at the Museum program. That program is expanding to include nine elementary schools this year, including those three.

Balliett told the students she likes writing mysteries because they engage readers while teaching them about certain topics.

"Thinking about something that doesn't have any easy answer is a good way to make your brain wake up," Balliett said.

They also asked about her other books, and she told them she wrote two collections of ghost stories when she was in her 20s that are now in a book called "Nantucket Ghosts."

But she didn't write the children's books until she was in her late 40s, she said.

"I think I was lucky, partly," she said. "It's hard to get your first book published. Not impossible, though."

And she encouraged the students to observe and write about the world around them.

"You don't have to live in some extraordinary place to write a good mystery," she said.

UI Youth Literature Festival set for today


Community members can participate in the University of Illinois College of Education's annual Youth Literature Festival today (Saturday, Oct. 6).

The festival's Community Day is scheduled from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. at the I Hotel and Conference Center, 1900 S. First St., C. It will feature hands-on activities, performances and author presentations.

Blue Balliett will host two readings there, from 10:45 to 11:15 a.m. in the I Hotel's Loyalty room, and from 11:30 a.m. to 12:15 p.m. in the same location.

For a full schedule of events, please visit

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