Throwback Thursday: The Twenty-One Balloons by William Pene duBois


It’s Thursday for just a few more hours, so hopefully I can qualify for my own blog post with this one! The Twenty-One Balloons won the Newbery in 1948, so at least I’ve got the throwback part correct!

At my old school, back in the teacher stacks, there were about 50 copies of this book.  I had never seen it before, but every time I went down that row of books, I stopped to examine the cover. I didn’t have time to introduce a new book into my curriculum, so I never got to read it.  I rediscovered this book again at the public library this year and I decided it would be the perfect thing to take to science camp.  It was light to pack and short in length, which was important because I knew I’d be really busy and really tired (and I was correct on both counts!)  This little book really took me by surprise!

The story is about Professor William Sherman who retires from teaching math and decides to go adventuring for a year on his own.  To make sure nobody can bother him, he chooses to travel by hot air balloon.  He has a giant balloon made and a wicker house to be the basket.  His little house has different rooms, furniture, and a porch where he can fish or do laundry while floating over the ocean! Unfortunately his journey comes to a crashing halt and he lands on the island of Krakatoa, home of the famous volcano. Sherman is amazed to discover a whole community of families from San Francisco is already living there! They have set up their civilization as a “restaurant government” and the whole thing is funded by a giant diamond mine on the island.  They have decided that their island lives are so perfect that they  keep their diamonds a secret to the outside world for fear of ruining their value.  The island’s inhabitants also invent many nifty devices to pass their time and make their lives easier, but also as a backup plan in case the volcano ever erupts.  The tremors that are caused by the volcano make the ground rise and fall in waves like the ocean, so much so that Professor Sherman gets seasick on land!

This book was absurdly delightful! I’m surprised that this hasn’t been made into a movie at this point.  (I’m picturing something very fanciful like “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.” If you haven’t seen it, check it out.  Yes, it’s old and it has singing, but it’s weird and clever!)  The Twenty-One Balloons is told as a story-within-a-story, so it can get a little wordy at time, with lots of expository details.  Don’t despair though, because the author has given lots of detailed sketches to capture your imagination, as if Professor Sherman had kept a diary or journal.

This would be a great book for summer vacation, a read-aloud, or a read-along with the book on tape (perfect for a road trip!)  The Twenty-One Balloons has an AR level of 6.8 and is worth 6 points.


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