1948: The 21 Balloons (Explosions Mandatory)

VERDICT: Treasure

Laurinda’s Rating: 3

The Twenty-One Ballons, a whimsical travelogue narrated by a not-particularly-successful balloonist, won the 1948 Newbery Medal. The book opens with the retrieval from the Atlantic Ocean of one Professor Sherman, found clinging to the wreckage of a wood platform and 20 balloons. His refusal to explain the circumstances anywhere except at the Explorers’ Club in San Francisco ignites the interest of the entire country. The presidents sends his personal train to convey Sherman from New York to San Francisco, where the city has decorated everything using a balloon theme. In one instance, their eagerness is not abetted by intelligence: the cupola of the Club, to which several strong balloons were tied, takes flight, only to land on a Native American reservation.

Once Professor Sherman arrives at the club, the book switches to a first person narration of his voyage. Planning on floating wherever the wind takes him for a year or so, Sherman designed a floating house, utilizing food stores as ballast. However, after very little time in the air, a sea gull punctures Sherman’s balloon over the island of Krakatoa. It is commonly “known” to be uninhabitable, so Sherman is shocked when he comes ashore (naked, as he ditched all his goods trying to keep the balloon from descending too quickly) to a welcome by a properly civilized gentleman in a morning suit. A sailor shipwrecked on the island discovered vast diamond mines; he escaped back to civilization and recruited twenty artistic/inventive families to populate the island. Selling a few diamonds at a time in cities spread throughout the world, they built an eclectic, self-sustaining community on the volcanic island. Each family was assigned a letter of the alphabet and serves cuisine from the corresponding country. Balloon invention pervade the island as well; the kids have a Balloon Merry-Go-Round which flies where the wind pushes it. Shortly after Sherman’s arrival, Krakatoa explodes. The families escape on a balloon borne platform but parachute off when over appropriate bits of land, leaving Sherman to attempt a landing because he lacks a parachute. It is from this landing that he’s retrieved at the beginning of the book. Undeterred by the experience, he vows to sell his diamond cuff-links and use the funds to take off on a year-long balloon voyage.

The third-person narrative sections, the first three chapters, captured my attention. The author’s writing style is engaging and the preparations for the Professor’s visit quite amusing. A local balloon company, for example, invents a new conveyance: a leather couch suspended from several balloons and drawn by horses. Grocers hang appropriately shaped produce from the ceiling to resemble balloons and women take up the old fad of balloon dresses. Nearly every page presents either a clever invention or humorous quips. I lost my interest somewhat when the narration switched into first-person, as the prose became more matter-of-fact and less entertaining. It also focused fairly heavily on the inventions created by the people of Krakatoa. While entertaining – there are chairs and tables that lower themselves into the floor, beds who sheets are cleaned automatically, and electric-powered chairs, among others – they become old rather quickly. We don’t really get close to the inhabitants of Krakatoa. The focus is squarely on the scenery, particularly the heavily heaving ground, and on the physical aspects of the community the Krakatoans created. Overall, this was a fairly entertaining read (the futurism in the prologue had me laughing uncontrollably because it was so wrong – though I wish atom transfer as a mode of travel had worked out). It’s also a reminder of how important the balloon and its offshoots were for a fair length of time. Because we mostly cut off that branch of scientific invention following the Hindenburg disaster, we tend to forget how promising and innovative balloon technology was in its day. I recommend The 21 Balloons especially for late elementary and middle school kids who are interested in science and inventions. The whimsy of it and the many plays-on-words will keep them reading.

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