The Twenty-One Balloons
William Pene Dubois (1948)
Read to: 2nd - 4th grade
Read independently: 5th - 6th grade
Definitely a book that requires a lofty imagination; this light and airy tale was reminiscent of Dr. Dolittle.
This story is primarily told in flash-back style with a bit of wrap-around. The main character is a 66 year old retired teacher who wants to spend a year traveling by hot air balloon. "...he thought he could float around for a whole year, out of touch with the earth, with nobody to bother him and leaving his destination to the winds. This book, The Twenty-One balloons, tells of his exciting trip. it is exciting, for he ran into trouble right away, including such disturbances as the greatest explosion in the history of the world. ... The period of the book is the period when balloons were most popular, 1860 to 1890." (p. 5-6)
About 60% of the way through the book, when Professor Sherman is well into his presentation at the Explorer's Club, we come out of flash back mode for an intermission. This was nice - it kept true to the wrap around story but did not go off on any tangents so as to be distracting. The author has done his own illustrations as black and white sketches which are extremely helpful in some spots to conceptualize his descriptions of unusually designed balloons and houses.
Throughout the story runs an underlying theme of highly moral examples. Such as when Professor Sherman is rescued and nursed back to health, the Captain, the Cook and the Doctor all want to hear his story of how he came to be floating in the ocean. Professor Sherman refuses to tell anyone until he first tells the "Western American Explorers' Club in San Francisco" of which he is an honorary member.
These type of moral examples are evenly tempered with scientific insight and humor. such as one anecdote in which San Francisco is decorated for Professor Sherman's arrival with balloons everywhere - seeing replicas of hot air balloons. During the night winds rocked the balloons, causing a cupola to loosen and take flight, finally coming to rest in an Indian reservation who decided it would serve as a new house for the Chief.
Also comical is the reference to Around the World in 80 Days and a young boy's calculation that Professor Sherman made the voyage in forty days - reinvigorating interest in his story just as it was beginning to wane due to the delay in getting from the East Coast to San Francisco. in the end Professor Sherman travels by Presidential train and winds up giving his stage presentation propped up with pillows from a bed.
The science comes in, for example, on page 43 when he discusses standard operations for balloons with gas and ballast and explains how he used food for ballast so that, "every time I threw a pail of garbage overboard, I would go a little higher. Thus for every unnecessary sand bag, I could carry extra food to make my trip last longer."
The level of detail is thorough and educational but not dreary or cumbersome. Like in Chapter Four when he simply states, "I swallowed several times to clear my years because they felt stuffed up while the balloon was climbing fast." (p. 47) Any reader who's ever flown by airplane will relate - those who haven't will just move through it as something related to balloon travel - but nobody is bogged down with explanations of Eustachian tubes. (Save that for Diana Gabaldon - interesting for adults but probably TMI for most kids.)
There are quite a few instances of superstitious thinking but it could also be considered foreshadowing. Professor Sherman ruminates that, "Mariners have often told me that they consider sea gulls to be good luck and always feed them by throwing garbage overboard. I didn't have any garbage at that early stage of my trip and couldn't afford to spare any of my precious food for feeding birds so I had to risk misfortune and let the gulls go hungry." (p. 49) Several pages later he does feed the birds which winds up being the end of his balloon.
This eventually lands him on an island known as Krakatoa. It is an island that is largely unknown and home of the largest, purest source of diamonds in the world. Even though it is a small island it has pieces of the entire world on it. The man who settled it set everything up very systematically. Each family took on a letter (alphabetically) for their last name. There are twenty families. Each family takes a turn cooking for the entire island for a whole day. So on F day everyone eats at the French-styled house of the F family who serves French food for breakfast, lunch and dinner. The next day it is G's turn and so on.
The novel continues with a bit more excitement on Krakatoa, including a quick escape, and comes to a close with the close of Professor Sherman's speech. It ends with a joke and an opening towards a sequel.