The Twenty-One Balloons
by William Pène du Bois
(Cross-posted at The Newbery Project.)
This is a goofy book. A crazy schoolteacher endeavors to escape the unpleasantness of teaching mathematics to unappreciative scholars by taking a leisurely and solitary journey aboard a very unusual hot air balloon. A few weeks later he is found famished and floating in the Atlantic having - after a subsequent trainride across America - circumnavigated the earth.
The bulk of the book is the professor’s fantastic recounting of his accidental encounter and adventures with the fabulously rich and secretive colonists of the famous volcanic island, Krakatoa. Du Bois himself produced the lovely drawings that illustrate the wondrous apparatuses of this author’s imagination.
Du Bois is wonderfully inventive. His book is not the sort I would usually seek out. I want characters to love - Anne with an E; Jim sacrificing his freedom for a friend; Penny, Nick, and Ben risking life and limb for the dream of a father*; a terrific, if naive, pig’s loyalty to his brilliant spider friend. Twenty-one Balloons is not really character driven. The professor is the only character we come to know well. Krakatoa is peopled aphabetically, for heaven’s sake, and we don’t get to know any of them well. But this outlandish story is beautifully crafted and raises interesting issues, such as the meaning of wealth. It is no wonder the 1948 Newbery judges were taken by this little book. I enjoyed it.
I found my very readable paperback copy for twenty-five cents at the Friends of the Library used book sale. It is the fiftieth Newbery Award book that I have read. This is my first post for the Newbery Project.
*Penny, Nick, and Ben are from my favorite children’s book, The Lion’s Paw by Robb White, now out-of-print.