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The Twenty-One Balloons

Title: The Twenty-One Balloons

Author: William Pène du Bois

Age Group: 8+

Synopsis: When a school teacher retires he decides to travel in a hot air balloon so that he can rediscover a solitary existence but when his hot air balloon bursts over the Pacific he finds himself in dire straits. His rescuers come from the most unlikely of places and take him on an unlikely journey full of inventions, exploding volcanoes, and diamonds the size of your hand.

The Low Down:

My mother first read this to me when I was young and then I read it to my students when I was a teaching. No one seems to have heard of it and that breaks my heart a little because The Twenty-One Balloons is a rare find full of imagination. I have to admit I don’t initially like the main character, Professor William Waterman Sherman, but his quick thinking and adventurous endeavours have endeared him to me. Very much like that crotchety old uncle that tells you to leave him alone but secretly loves you.

The book opens with Professor Sherman being rescued by a ship in the Atlantic Ocean. He refuses to tell anyone how he came to be half starved and half drowned in the middle of the ocean. The only people who can hear his story first are the members of the Western American Explorers Club. So, for the first two chapters, we hear about the anticipation that surrounds this exciting reveal. It not only excites the characters but the readers as well and when he does begin to tell what happened to him, you find that it’s Professor Sherman’s tenacity and stubbornness that makes his story so amazing beginning to end. He tells how he took off in a balloon and sailed across most of the Pacific but ended up on the island of Krakatoa. On which, he found twenty extraordinary families living. He stays with them until the volcano on Krakatoa erupts, blowing up the island in the process. Somehow he survives all this but also ends up half way around the world.

The story is accompanied by small illustrations, that essentially aren’t need, but help bring the story to life. Pène du Bois does a fantastic job of bringing the story to life, all on his own. The children on the island Professor Sherman washes up on are all inventors. They think of furniture that can be moved like bumper cars, beds that allow you to sleep under the stars with the pull of a lever, and other wonders that will make you wish a move to Krakatoa was possible. Pène du Bois really captures the childlike wonderment throughout his book while encouraging active imaginations with subtle humor.

Story Tips:

  1. Read the introduction. It gives you some really great information about the actual events surrounding Krakatoa.

I need more!

I haven’t read any other books by William Pène du Bois bu you can find a fairly comprehensive list on Amazon or Google.

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