The Twenty-One Balloons
By William Pène du Bois
I am a creature of habit. I order the same thing every time I go to a restaurant, I stick to a routine, and my favorites are my favorites. Many of the books I fell in love with as a child are, to this day, still my favorites. I was once told by a colleague that many of the books I enjoy are “crusty”. I believe a great book never goes out of style; it becomes a classic that can stand the test of time.
Although The Twenty-One Balloons is an old classic, it is new to me. Maybe it was the balloon on the cover that reminded me of my hometown summer festival; Maybe it was the giant diamond on the front (diamonds are a girl’s best friend). Whatever it was, this book kept drawing me in. I finally got around to reading it and I’m so glad I did.
My students had just read a piece on deadly volcanos and were very fascinated by the volcano at Krakatau that completely blew away an island and caused tsunamis in distant villages. They asked great questions like: “What if this happened today?” or “I wonder what it would have been like to live there?” It was a total coincidence that I happened to pick up The Twenty-One Balloons that very week.
William Pène du Bois paints a picture of what could have happened that fateful year at Krakatau. Professor Sherman is attempting to travel around the world in his hydrogen balloon. Very early in his trip, he runs in to trouble and finds himself washed up on an unknown beach. He awakes and is greeted by a man in a very fancy suit, which is odd since he seems to be surrounded by beach and jungle. He is no sooner swept away to the middle of that jungle where is introduced to a whole village of families living in a self-created utopian society. We learn that the village is supported by the abundant supplies of diamonds that lie in the caverns below the ground. The islanders keep the jungle thick around them so they can live in secrecy and never be discovered by passing ships. Everything is perfect. The only down-side to living on the island is the occasional volcanic rumble, but the inhabitants have learned to live with it and go about their daily lives. They even have a perfect plan should the “big” eruption ever come.
History gives us the facts about the island; the “big” eruption does come. Professor Sherman goes on to tell his story, but does anyone believe him when all the evidence has been blown away?
I found myself completely lost in this book. I wanted to be on that island. My willing suspension of disbelief was present and it felt like it could be real. I wanted to talk to Professor Sherman. I was so anxious to share the book with my class and discuss the possibilities. It’s a great classroom read-aloud.
The Twenty-One Balloons is now on my list of all-time favorites. It’s a classic that has stood the test of time. It will, and should be, enjoyed by many readers to come.
Sarah Jones is a fifth grade- Language Arts and Social Studies teacher. She lives in Battle Creek, Michigan with her husband and two children. She is passionate about reading and developing children into lifelong readers.