After three or so days of tackling issues of concern, it was a tonic on Friday afternoon to walk into a session entitled “Reaching Tweens.” The folks so labeled, I’m told, are poised between childhood and teenage – and they’re the target of a writer with the wonderful name of Blue Balliett, a Chicagoan who composes children’s mysteries. Her second thriller, The Wright 3, is all about the Trust’s very own Robie House in Chicago, menaced by demolition until three sixth-graders and their teacher band together to save the Frank Lloyd Wright landmark. It’s a proper mystery with weird events, mysterious strangers, and cryptic messages. It’s also an adventure that Balliett uses to infect her young readers with an appreciation for architecture, especially of the historic sort. “Nothing’s as important to the future of preservation,” Balliett told the audience, “than engaging the interest of our kids.”
The book came to be after Balliett, an elementary-school teacher who lives in an 1888 house in the same Hyde Park neighborhood, took her third-grade class to Robie. “They loved it. I was taken aback at how excited they were.” So she planted Petra and Calder, the mini-heroes of her first book, Chasing Vermeer, into the new tale, in which the 1910 masterpiece is slated to be chopped into pieces and shipped off to four art museums. With their new classmate Tommy – and teacher Mrs. Hussey (love that name) – they ultimately save the day.
Balliett, softly intense, read from the book. At one point of high fright, little Petra wonders, “Are shadows just an accident? Sometimes they look like more. … This building doesn’t want us here.” (Interjected Balliett, “They come to see Robie House as more than a house. They begin to believe it’s somewhat alive.”) The trio breaks into the place. “How odd,” one of the sleuth-ettes says. “This feels so homey.” Then, after listening to measured steps in the distance, “a man in dark clothing stood on the terrace. The Wright 3 were trapped.” Sorry – can’t reveal any more.
The Wright 3 has been selling very well and has been translated into oodles of foreign tongues. The feedback is encouraging. “Kids are feeling inspired to prize buildings in their own communities that adults don’t value,” Balliett said. Picking up on this spirit, Robie House has used the book to develop a special curriculum that targets younger visitors, the goal being to build an awareness of and respect for the built environment, according to Jan Kieckhefer, education director of the Frank Lloyd Wright Preservation Trust (which runs the site for the Trust). Her Wright 3 offerings include children’s tours based on the book that have been packing the kids in every Saturday. “Unlike with Harry Potter’s Hogwarts, you can visit the site,” Kieckhefer pointed out. Sometimes, the young ones themselves give the tour. Commented Robie House operations manager Janet Van Delft, “It’s great fun to hear students explain architectural details.”