Monday, April 26, 2021

Book Review: The Twenty-One Balloons by William Pene du Bois

In 1883, when retired math professor William Waterman Sherman leaves San Francisco in a customized hot air balloon, he is planning to fly across the Pacific Ocean. Three weeks later, he is found in the Atlantic Ocean amidst the wreckage of twenty balloons. After he is rescued and has some time to rest, Professor Sherman makes a public speech explaining what has happened to him. It turns out that he crashed on the island of Krakatoa, landing there just days before its volcano erupted. On Krakatoa, he met a group of people who secretly inhabited the island, living on the fortune found in its diamond mines and following a series of systems that gave everyone a place to live and food to eat.

What a unique and fun book this is! I had no idea what to expect going into it, but the tone of the writing drew me in immediately. I quickly realized that the writing style lent itself well to being read aloud, and I wound up reading it to my big girls (ages 5 and 7) in a matter of days. They were as hooked as I was by the fanciful, adventurous storyline and the humorous, deadpan storytelling. Even my five-year-old, who is traditionally a big realistic fiction fan, was completely into the adventure, wanting to know what was going to happen next.

The illustrations add a lot to the book. They help the reader envision some of the technology, including Professor Sherman's own balloon and the gadgets used by the Krakatoans. My girls clamored for me to show them every single picture, and they seemed to enjoy them as much as the text.  My oldest, especially, is very into drawing diagrams of imagined inventions, and I think this aspect of the book really resonated with those interests for her. 

This book was such a pleasant surprise for me. It is very different from most other children's books and genuinely distinctive, not just in its writing but also in the format and structure of the story. Though my kids enjoyed it, I think they will probably want to revisit it again when they are a bit older, as I think the ideal audience for some of the humor is more toward the 10-14 age range. But it is a great choice for a family read-aloud with a wide range of ages, and I will most likely read it again to my entire crew when the little ones are big enough to appreciate it. 

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