Tuesday, September 17, 2013

The 21 Balloons by William Pene du Bois (1947)

I remember this book quite fondly; I received as a gift as part of  a boxed set of Newbery Award winners that also included The Island of the Blue Dolphins and Roller Skates.  There had to be at least two others in the set, but for now I can't remember what they were.  One could have been The Witch of Blackbird Pond.  I know I also had copies of A Wrinkle in Time and From the Mixed Up Files, but I don't recall them being part of this set.  I have no idea now.

If I had to make a top 10 of children's books I loved reading and re-reading as a kid, this wouldn't probably make that list, but it's probably in the top 20.  As an adult, I think I seem pretty hidebound and home sweet home; travel makes me nervous, particularly since 9-11; flying is a pain.  But as a child, I read voraciously about other places, and dreamed of becoming something else, somewhere else.  I remember devouring some sort of Lowell Thomas travelogue in book form one summer that was tucked away in the back of the library.  I loved National Geographic.  It makes me quite sad to think that that adventuresome spirit has dwindled away somewhat.  I'm not sure I want to explore the reasons why, either here in a public blog or internally.

All that said, The 21 Balloons really fits the mark of a wild travelogue and it's understandable why I would have loved it.  Re-reading the book again, I'm struck as how creatively highbrow it is; so many of the old books take it for granted that kids were smart.  Nothing is dumbed-down.  I think maybe my love of exotic food and willingness to try almost any kind of food begins in books like The 21 Balloons.  

Pene Du Bois's use of verisimilitude is what makes this book particularly lovely.  He uses plenty of real people and events, both balloon related and historically, to make Dr. Sherman's story seem plausible, as if this were a true account. Krakatoa aside, he also drops the names of famous 19th century balloonists John Wise and T.C. Lowe.  The economics of the Gourmet Government are as sound as they are far fetched.  His balloon inventions sound wonderful, and the kid in me wishes I had a balloon merry go round and all those other inventions.  A year in a balloon sounds simply delightful, and I envy Professor Sherman.

This was the Newbery Winner for 1948. The honor books that year were a large list of unknowns (at least to me):  Pancakes-Paris by Claire Huchet Bishop,
Li Lun, Lad of Courage by Carolyn Treffinger,
The Quaint and Curious Quest of Johnny Longfoot by Catherine Besterman,
The Cow-Tail Switch, and Other West African Stories by Harold Courlander, and
Misty of Chincoteague by Marguerite Henry (which I've heard of but never read).  Other notable books for kids that year include Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank, Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown, Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle by Betty MacDonald and Stone Soup by Marcia Brown.

William Pene Bu Bois was one of the founding editors of The Paris Review; he was the art editor.  He was quite, quite handsome.

He served in World War II, stationed in Bermuda, where he apparently wrote most if not all of The 21 Balloons, which was published in 1947.   When he was 31 years old.

The Twenty-One BalloonsThe Twenty-One Balloons by William Pène du Bois
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Intellectually challenging and creatively highbrow, The 21 Balloons has an essence of Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels and the various voyages of Doctor Doolittle, but mostly is a slim but fun homage to Jules Verne's Around the World in Eighty Days. Pene du Bois's genius, and maybe the reason he won the Newbery Award for this book, was his brilliant use of verisimilitude to add plausibility to an otherwise crazy story. Dropping names of real balloonists of the time such as John Wise and T.C. Lowe, using the explosion of Krakatoa as the climax of the travelogue, adding actual economic theory (of a sort, at least) to the function of the Gourmet Government, mixing in real science and possible inventions.   This all makes for a delightful and fun story, one of my favorites growing up (and still is).  Lovers of steampunk should love this book.

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