Fly Away With This Fanciful Tale

21 Balloons by William Pene Dubois

It's unusual to find a young adult's novel-especially a Newbery Award winning one-which features an adult as the protagonist and not a child. It may be that you have to go back to 1947, the year when 21 Balloons won the prestigious Newbery Award. It's a book that doesn't even have a child as a main character and the protagonist doesn't even especially like children.

Surprisingly, the absence of children as main characters doesn't in any way detract from the fun and wonder in this book. Perhaps it is because the telling of the tale fills us with a childlike wonder-even five and a half decades later when the inventions featured in this book cease to be amazing or even unusual.

21 Balloons is the story of Professor William Sherman's travels. In 1883, he set off from San Francisco for a balloon ride over the Pacific and was found a month later floating with 21 balloons in the Atlantic Ocean. This seemed an astounding feat and everyone wanted to know what had happened. Professor Sherman was loyal, however, and said he would tell his tale first to the Western American Explorers Club in San Francisco, of which he was a member. This built up suspense for several chapters before he began to tell of the wonders of his adventures and the amazing island of Krakatoa.

21 Balloons is a story that mixes fact and fantasy. In fact, if we were living in 1947, we might go so far as to call it light science fiction, though no such classification would hold up today.

The Facts

Krakatoa. There really is an island of Krakatoa that had a tremendous volcanic eruption in 1883. It is part of the Indonesian chain of islands, smack between Sumatra and Java.

It is most famous for the volcanic eruption on August 26, 1883-the most violent volcanic eruption recorded in world history. Before 1883, the island was 3.1 miles by 5.6 miles long; after the eruption, only a third of that was left. The eruption was heard more than 3,000 miles away. Ash fell on ships that were as far as 3,728 miles away. The eruption set off many giant tidal waves, some that rose more than 120 feet above sea level. These waves were recorded as far away as the English Channel as well as throughout the Indian Ocean, Pacific Ocean, the U.S. West Coast, and South America. The combination of waves and the explosion killed at least 36,417 people and destroyed more than 150 villages. The amount of ash that rose caused unusual sunsets around the world for the next three years. Even in such distant places as New York, firefighters were called because people thought the bright red sunsets were fires.

Balloon Travel. Balloon travel was certainly well-established by 1883, having been first popularized a century before. By 1852, Henri Giffard had flown in the first steam-powered balloon. Balloons had caught the fancy of the public and duBois' book is filled with some of the fanciful inventions that were being dreamed about at the time.

Explorers Club. Professor Sherman belonged to a local chapter of an Explorer's Club. Today, the International Explorers Club continues to promote exploration. According to their home page: "Since 1904, our international professional society has been a meeting point and unifying force for explorers and scientists worldwide. The Explorers Club is dedicated to the advancement of field research, scientific exploration, and the ideal that it is vital to preserve the instinct to explore." While Sherman's club predates the international society by as many years as there are balloons in the book's title, the club and the protagonist certainly capture the mission of the society.

The Fantasy

How would an island of millionaires live if they couldn't reveal the source of their wealth? What would happen if you brought together a co-operative of artists, scientists, and creative thinkers and gave them unlimited resources?

The answers to those questions are part of what Dubois explores in 21 Balloons. He gives us a tour of the island, showing us the fanciful inventions and architecture that the residents of Krakatoa have developed. He even splashes the book liberally with pictures of such things as the Balloon Merry-Go-Round and the family of four parachutes.

DuBois writes with just a touch of absurdity-woven into the tale in a manner that seems to say that it is only the shallow-minded fool who wouldn't believe the tale being told. 21 Balloons was written during the Industrial Age, at a time when it truly did seem that it were possible to invent anything. Perhaps the reason a modern reader is slow to credulity is because many of the "outlandish" and "fanciful" inventions are things that could now be done with ease.

Another delightful element of the book is the "gourmet government," by which the citizens of Krakatoa rule themselves. It is an element that makes each of us wish that we could visit the island and live under such a government-never mind that the volcano erupted and destroyed the society (also keeping any would-be literalists from taking pictures to "prove" that Sherman's tale was a tall one).

In reading this book, I couldn't help but think of Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travel, except that Dubois is optimistic and hopeful where Swift is satirical and harsh. Dubois creates a land that is filled with wonders, a land where we would want to visit, a land that we wish we ourselves had thought of.

It is a book that has equal appeal to adults-at least for those adults who still enjoy taking whimsical flights of imagination.