The Danger Box by Blue Balliett

“This time, I’d be the questions-starter.” Zoomy.

If you haven’t already been captivated by the intellectual mystery stylings of Ms. Balliett, which feature real-life figures such as Frank Lloyd Wright, Vermeer, and Charles Darwin, as well as plucky and realistic kids, you are totally missing out!  She centers her adventure-mysteries around real scientists and artists, and includes fantastic codes and puzzles for her readers to solve.  There is always a race to figure out the mystery before the protagonists do!

Blue Balliett certainly deserves her NY Times Bestseller status.  She writes with a compassionate eye towards the anxieties and insecurities of childhood, underscored with a strong belief in the inner talents and inherent worthiness of every child.  Those authorial traits of hers are especially apparent in her latest book, The Danger Box. Like her other novels, the plot centers around a historical mystery: in this case, the eccentric billionaire, Mr. Zip, orders a priceless artifact, to be delivered by a complicated series of transfers and couriers.  However, mayhem ensues when Mr. Zip dies before the final transfer is complete, and the future of the valuable object is in jeopardy.  Does the fourth courier keep it, confident in the fact that no one yet knows that Zip had orchestrated such a heist?   Just as the last carrier decides to hide out and resell the object (a field notebook of Charles Darwin’s, written during his time on The Beagle), his truck (and the notebook) are stolen from the bar where he was lurking.  The world is at risk of losing the artifact forever!

Balliett deftly changes gears after the riveting exposition, introducing readers to the meek and anxious Zoomy, a legally blind boy abandoned on the doorstep of a farmhouse in a tiny Michigan town, soon after his birth.  He keeps daily lists in notebooks, to keep his anxiety at bay, reducing his amount of charmingly-named “worry crumbs”.  However, soon Zoomy’s peaceful life is disrupted as his alcoholic father resurfaces in the small town, threatening the family with secrets too big to contain.

These two stories are linked skillfully, twined together with issues of Zoomy’s self-published Gas Gazette, a newspaper that features profiles of famous scientists and inventors, revealed in a series of clues and anecdotes.  The plot culminates in a fire, family tragedy, and an astonishing discovery, and all the characters involved undergo transformation of one sort or another.

Enjoy solving the codes and piecing together the clues to the mystery, but take time to appreciate Zoomy and his quiet resilience.  I feel that Ms. Balliett has mastered this genre:  she never relies fully on plot at the expense of characterization.  All elements are present and exquisitely and sensitively rendered, resulting in a book that’s meant to share.  If you have an anxious child at home, this is a book to sweep the worry crumbs away and celebrate the diverse talents and skills of every child.

Happy Reading!

Balliett, Blue.  The Danger Box. New York: Scholastic Press, 2010.  322 pp.  Grades 5-8.

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