Twenty One Balloons

“We are slaves of our own piggishness, we have locked ourselves in a diamond prison. On the other hand, we are very happy here; and I suppose the fascination of knowing that we are each one of us richer than the combined Midases, Nabobs, and Croesi of history enters too into the Krakatoan spell which keeps us here.”


In 1947, William Pene du Bois published a little adventure novel that was a magical blend of fact and fantasy. Setting his story in 1883, he created a unique engineering enterprise that resulted in the discovery of a utopia settled on top of an active volcano. Beautifully, our story draws upon sensational real events and marries them with lively fiction. This little story is very clever and perfectly suited to the imaginations of “little men” in search of something wild, engaging, historical and wholesome.


Shockingly, this Newbery Medal winner bears some striking similarities to a story penned by F. Scott Fitzgerald called The Diamond as Big as the Ritz. There are many shared ideas, but there are also stark contrasts between the two. Namely, that Twenty One Balloons was written for children and Fitzgerald wrote much more adult themes.


In this little story, the reader’s interest is captivated by the reticence of its main character. After being rescued by the SS Cunningham, our world traveler refuses to explain to his rescuers, the press, the mayor of New York City, and the President of the United States of America, how a man who departed less than 40 days prior from San Francisco in a hot air balloon, ended up in the middle of the Atlantic ocean.  


The first 45 pages of this 180-page book are a complete puzzle to the reader. We, like the “public” in the book, are waiting for some kind of explanation. We sense a good story in the making, but we are all but lost on what it might be. Our patience is rewarded.

Part of the charm of this book is the mystery. So, I will be particularly careful about not spoiling the most interesting details. Essentially, this story is a tribute to the kind of risk-takers, engineers, and artists that could create a lone island utopia. In the spirit of Jules Verne, every detail of this Krakatoan culture is carefully thought out, and the author makes heavy use of engineering creativity, socio-political intrigue, and boyish adventure fantasy.

Completely wholesome, highly inventive, and carefully written, this small adventure novel deserves its Newbery Medal. I was captivated by the audio and delighted by the pen and ink illustrations in my Puffin Modern Classic. I don’t think that I would love reading this one aloud, but I do think that my nine-year-old will love hiding away in a nook and reading it by himself. My younger ones (5 and almost 7) will enjoy listening to it during the afternoon quiet time.