Author Blue Balliett is no stranger to 57th Street Books in Hyde Park. A twenty-five-year resident of the neighborhood and patron of the store for many years, she proudly claims that it is the “best bookstore in the world.” This past Saturday, the store hosted the release event for her sixth book, Pieces and Players. The event provided an opportunity for Balliett’s young fans to hear from the author during a short talk and reading, to speak with her, and to get signed copies of the book.
Balliett brings together her most celebrated characters (Petra, Calder, and Tommy from Chasing Vermeer, The Wright 3, and The Calder Game, Zoomy from The Danger Box, and Early from Hold Fast) in this book for an adventure and a puzzling mystery involving a museum robbery, a Chicago art tour, and a ghost. The characters collaborate to recover stolen artwork while having meaningful conversations about art.
Pieces and Players, like several other Balliett novels, is set on the South Side, in Kenwood. She describes the South Side as a place of mysteries and enjoys its place in her stories. This newest book draws on Balliett’s interest in the art world and art history education. The fictional Farmer Museum in Kenwood is based completely on the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, which was the site of an art heist in 1990. Similar to the Gardner Museum theft, one Vermeer, one Manet, and three Rembrandt pieces, along with five Degas drawings, are stolen from the Farmer Museum.
Balliett takes the curiosity of children seriously by presenting them with real mysteries such as the Gardner Museum heist. Balliett describes herself as a great believer in the “power of curiosity.” She explains, “[children] need and deserve big ideas” in order to remain engaged with the world of the novel.
Balliett’s approach to children’s literature is influenced by her experiences as both a mother of three and a former third-grade English teacher at the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools. Balliett initially intended her first novel, Chasing Vermeer, to be a “read-aloud” book exclusively for her class. The experience of sharing the book with her students inspired her to publish it. In order to inspire her young readers themselves to write, Balliett often presents pictures of her own messy notes and handwritten manuscripts when she visits schools.
As the event came to an end, Balliett playfully mentioned an FBI reward of five million dollars for whoever can solve the mystery of the Gardner Museum heist. She called on all of the children in the room to get to work on getting to the bottom of this “real mystery.” “This robbery needs to be solved,” Balliett exclaimed. A wave of excited chattering spread through the room.