Words opened road to adventure for author Blue Balliett

Blue Balliett's early love of reading foreshadowed her career as a bestselling author.

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WALLA WALLA -- A photo magnified onto a screen over the stage shows a 12-year-old Blue Balliett sitting on a chair, completely absorbed with the book in her hands.

Now a bestselling author, Balliett admitted to a young audience at Cordiner Hall on Tuesday that she was a "dorky" and "shy" girl in school.

"I read, read and read as a kid," she confessed.

But her love of reading and writing eventually turned into a career, although Balliett spent many years as an elementary school teacher. The students in her third- and fourth-grade classes eventually inspired her to create her own stories. In the end, her stories are "packed with ideas that kids have given me."

Balliett, the author of "Chasing Vermeer," "The Wright 3" and "The Calder Game," spoke to hundreds of third-, fourth- and fifth-grade students Tuesday afternoon, wrapping up the two-day Walla Walla Kids Read event. The literacy outreach program was launched by local author Patrick Carman in 2007 with the ambition of exposing all of the valley's elementary school children to acclaimed writers.

Balliett's first book, "Chasing Vermeer," was written over several years. She started working on it to offer her students a children's mystery book with more complex ideas.

Balliett showed pictures of her "studio," the laundry room of her Chicago-area home where she launched her writing career. She pulls ideas for her stories from her neighborhood, and includes the sights offered by the city.

An art history major, Balliett also weaves art into the problem-solving plots of her stories, and has incorporated the works of artist Alexander Calder and architect Frank Lloyd Wright in the books.

Her work takes simple tools: blank sheets in a notebook and a pen. With words she creates ideas, characters and plot lines. From those thoughts, Balliett then adds images, people and places from real life, and molds it all together to create her stories.

When the talk ended, the students had questions for her, like if she loves writing.

"I think I just love messing around with language," she answered. "There is something in me that really loves making things out of words."

When a student asked Balliett her age, she confidently answered 54.

"I'm going to be 55 in the spring," she said.

The young audience gasped, then broke out in applause.

Writing took her away from education full-time about six years ago. But chasing her love of writing has been a new adventure. It took her to England -- twice -- to research her second book, "The Wright 3."

Being in England summoned new inspirations, like the many hedge mazes she tackled, and left her wondering what it would be like to try at night. She visited a cemetery so old that the names on tombstones had worn away. And she photographed a 300-year-old oak tree with an exposed center that she couldn't quite get the courage to squeeze into.

She saved those adventures for the characters in her books.

"Your characters can do things you're too fraidy-cat to do," she said.

Maria P. Gonzalez can be reached at mariagonzalez@wwub.com or 526-8317. Check out her blog at blogs.ublabs.org/schoolhousemissives.

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