We’re already off and running with our Newbery Through the Decades challenge for this month — the 1940’s. We started The 21 Balloons by William Pene Du Bois, the 1948 medal winner, at the tail end of February. It was a quick read, and we had it finished earlier this week.
The 21 Balloons is a “fantastic” tale (in the sense of “imaginative” or “fanciful”). It takes place in 1883, and professor William Waterman Sherman has been found in the Atlantic ocean surrounded by 20 large balloons attached to a platform. This is quite a surprise, because he took off in one balloon from San Francisco only just a little over a month earlier. After insisting that he must return to the Western American Explorers Club to tell his tale, he is eventually whisked by train across the country to recount his journey.
Professor Sherman crossed the Pacific quite quickly in his balloon, in which he had hoped to spend a year floating around the world. Misfortune struck, in the form of aggressive seagulls, and he unfortunately crash lands on a tropical island. This tropical island turns out to be Krakatoa, which, in this story, turns out to not only be inhabited, but inhabited by a fabulously wealthy group of 20 American families, who have carved out for themselves a most unique society on the island.
If you are at all familiar with history, you might guess as to why Professor Sherman’s stay on the island did not last. Just as in real life, the fictional volcano on the Island of Krakatoa also erupts, causing the islands inhabitants to flee, and the professor to end up in the state which he is found at the beginning of the book.
While I found the book somewhat entertaining, it’s not one I would eagerly re-read or list among my favorites for the year. Miss M enjoyed it more than I did. She liked the humor of some of the situations on the island, and was more easily able to suspend her disbelief at the circumstances that led to the group of Americans living on the island. I found the set-up to be a bit preposterous, and that diminished my enjoyment of the book to some extent. I’ve only read one of the 1948 honor books (Misty of Chincoteague), and I have to say I enjoyed that one more in comparison.