Wednesday, August 6, 2014

The Danger Box, by Blue Balliett

Title:  The Danger Box
Author: Blue Balliett
Publisher: Scholastic Press
Year:  2010
Pages: 320
Genre:  Realistic Fiction, Mystery
Themes:  Friendship, Family, Science
Age Range: 4th-7th Grade

 Zoomy, now twelve, was found on the doorsteps of his grandparents as an infant, with a note explaining that he is their run-away 19 year old's son.  The immediately take him in and raise him as their own, no questions asked.  Zoomy's childhood in bucolic Three Oaks, Michigan is not free from problems however.  Zoomy has pathological myopia, rendering him legally if not completely blind.  He also has symptoms reminiscent of Tourette's Sydrom or Autism Spectrum Disorder, including an obsession with tiny plant and insects and a penchant for list-making.  These conditions make it difficult for Zoomy to make a friend, but he finally finds one in Lorol, a girl his age who's mother is working at a local summer camp.  His life has never been better, but it is all threatened when his father reappears in town, bringing a mysterious box with him.  Concerned that the box may be part of a crime, Zoomy's grandparents open it to discover an old notebook.  Antique store owners that they are, they take the box, but give Zoomy the old notebook.  What Zoomy reads in the notebook leads him to an amazing discovery, and also brings danger to his small home town.

Balliett takes on a completely different vibe with this novel.  Her fourth mystery for the 9-12 year old set, The Danger Box is not set in the usual urban landscape of Hyde Park in Chicago, but in the lovely rural countryside of southwestern Michigan, just an couple of hours outside the city.  I can attest to the loveliness of the scenery there-I recently drove right past the exit for Three Oaks on my way back from a visit to Traverse City, Michigan.

What is the same, of course, is Balliett's high quality storytelling.  Balliett takes a real life mystery-on of Charles Darwin's missing notebooks-and uses it as the back story for her fictional story.  In the process of discovering whether the notebook was authentic, Zoomy and Lorol provide the reader with tons of interesting information about Darwin's life and work, making this novel a perfect tie in to a life sciences unit of study.  In the process, Zoomy's fears about his father coming back into his life, and his observations about the different way in which he sees the world, provide good fodder for discussions about family structures, what makes a family, and how people perceive the world differently.  And as always, Balliett's writing style shows an ease and flow that are a study in author's craft.  I highly recommend this book as an addition to any reading program, whether it be independent reading, guided reading, literature circles, whatever!

Teacher Resources:
Scholastic Discussion Guide
Blue Balliett's Website