Sunday, May 20, 2012

The Twenty-One Balloons

The Twenty-One Balloons
 Written and Illustrated by William Pene du Bois
 First published in 1947 Puffin Books, USA (numerous editions available)
Winner of the Newbery medal
Suggested age group: 12+

It is the year 1883 and William Sherman, a retired schoolmaster from San Francisco, having been found adrift in the Atlantic, then rescued by a passing ship finally arrives in New York to a delighted if somewhat mystified reception. And therein begins William Pene du Bois equally intriguingly titled book, ‘The Twenty-one Balloons’.

William Sherman had originally set off from his home town of San Francisco, intending to live a life of peace and contentment in a balloon that he had designed himself. And yet he was found in an ocean on the continent's other side and everyone including this reader soon becomes most agog to hear his story. Sherman however takes his time telling it and Pene Du Bois makes the wait well worth it and very humorous. Sherman will not tell his story to anyone, not even the President or any other important official but only to the society that sponsored and was responsible for his balloon and his maiden voyage. So the build-up to the great revelation takes days and immense preparation. The presidential train is sent to escort Sherman home, the streets of San Francisco are decorated with specially prepared balloons with some unforeseen consequences and Sherman arrives to give his lecture in a giant sized auditorium, reclining on the most comfortable bed imaginable (for he needs the rest), pandered to by the high officials of the city.

 Set in the 1880s, Sherman’s adventure comes at a time when the enthusiasm and the dream to make humans fly saw several innovations and inventions. It had been almost a hundred years since the Montgolfier brothers had sent up their balloon in France; it would be just twenty years more and the Wright brothers would make their first flight on a light plane they had designed in their bicycle shed. It is in 1883 that the volcano of Krakatoa in the Indonesian Islands erupted with a ferocity never seen before. And Sherman’s story, as du Bois tells us, is linked to this eruption as well, and how he and the other interesting inhabitants of Krakatoa, make a timely escape in twenty one balloons. The number is important in the telling of the tale. 

For time-travel, the flying machine is a useful, all-purposeful contrivance. My interest in reading this book was precisely because Atisa, a character I created, travels in different historical periods, in a flying machine gifted to him by the mythical inventor, Daedelus. Sherman’s balloon while it doesn’t travel back, takes us to a different world altogether – that of Krakatoa. It comes alive in the lovely black and white illustrations done by du Bois himself. It isn’t just a dangerous island with a deceptive volcano, but one peopled with fascinating characters, as inventive as they are secretive. It’s a book that is full of their amazing inventions, the unusual community life they have created, and how they try to cope with the volcano’s unexpected eruption. A book that’s also full of history and also science, amazing and very chuckle-inducing to the very end. (ends)


sathish said...

Hi Anu,

Welcome to ST and a wonderful book to start off!

I saw the B&W illustrations of the book in Amazon. they look awesome.

Choxbox said...

Hi Anu! As always a pleasure to read your review!Will show your review to my older child who enjoyed the book thoroughly.

@Sathish - our/your library has it.

Roopa Pavan said...


ranjani.sathish said...

Welcome to ST, Anu and this book seems like a very interesting pick ! Really enjoyed reading the review.

anu_kumar said...

Thank you all so very much, and Praba too for its lovely to be part of Saffron tree. Thank you for all your encouraging comments. Am trying to finish reviewing two more books on historical fiction; one which is sort of related to a post Sandhya put up recently and deals with the Nazi period of Germany. But more on this later. Glad your older one loved the book, Chox; am sure I read the book much after she did, so would be glad if she could pass on more reading tips to me, really :-)

utbtkids said...

Welcome to SaffronTree Anu. An interesting review as always. Will check it out.

Choxbox said...

Yes Anu, our children are lucky - there is so much easier access to many wonderful children's books now, compared to when we were growing up :)

sandhya said...

A wonderful review of a book that sounds very intriguing. You have revealed just enough of the story to tantalize, and we will certainly want to read this one. Choxie, here I come for the book!

And welcome on board the ST family.

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