The guest author spoke to an assembly of third, fourth and fifth graders, then visited classrooms and enjoyed lunch with children at the Homewood school on Monday, April 8.
The story focuses on Petra and Calder, two soon-to-be 12-year-olds, who discover a Johannes Vermeer painting, “The Lady Writing,” has been stolen from the Art Institute of Chicago. They decide they will be sleuths who help uncover the theft. The District 153 PTA purchased 687 copies of “Chasing Vermeer” for every child and staff member at Churchill.
Balliett set the story in Chicago’s Hyde Park neighborhood where she lives, and where her fictitious characters Petra and Calder are enrolled at the University of Chicago Lab School in the book. Balliett taught at that school for 11 years.
Churchill students were curious about Petra and Calder. What were they like? Balliett said they are made up characters. They aren’t any one of her students, but she did create them using characteristics of students in her classes.
How did she think to use pentominoes for clues? Balliett said she used pentominoes, a puzzle using certain letters to form rectangles, in her classroom to teach math skills. Pentominoes allow Calder to develop a secret code. Balliett said she’s observed that kids are “really good problem solvers” so she didn’t hesitate to include clues using pentominoes.
How did she come up with the idea for the book? Balliett took her third grade class to art museums around Chicago and gave them an assignment to write about a work of art and set the story in a place they knew, but they could make up the characters. The stories inspired her and she decided to take on the assignment herself never dreaming it would take her five years and about 10 re-writes to get the book ready for a publisher.
It was the book “The Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler” about children hiding in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, that gave her insights on how to place a story in a museum. Balliett received the book for her 12th birthday and it stayed with her for decades, she said.
“I read like a maniac. I loved mysteries,” she told them. “I read that book at age 12 and loved it so much – it just kind of exploded in my brain – I thought it felt good to read an art mystery and the kids in it were smart. I never forgot that book.”
She earned a bachelor’s degree in art history, which proved useful when she was researching Vermeer, the world of museums and art theft. She chose the painting “The Lady Writing” because “I just like the way she’s looking at you. You feel like you’re standing in the room with her.”
Balliett told the kids not to be shy about writing. She suggested they carry a little notebook with them to write their ideas. She still uses notebooks for her ideas.
Today Balliett’s “Chasing Vermeer” is available in 35 languages and is available around the world. She’s continued writing books that feature Petra, Calder and their friend, Tommy, and has expanded into new characters.
She’s stuck with her young audience of readers because she finds “kids are just amazing.”