The Twenty One Balloons: Worth the Float?

Sep 16, 2019 By Ethan Ling, 14
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Willian Pène du Bois’s fantastical classic, The Twenty One Balloons, begins in the late 1800s. The captain of the USS Cunningham en route to New York discovers Professor Sherman nearly dead on the wreckage of 20 hot air balloons floating in the Atlantic Ocean.

He immediately picks him up and escorts him to a ship cabin. He begs for Professor Sherman to tell him how he got there, but the professor replies that he must wait until he reaches the San Francisco Explorers Club. After arriving in New York, everyone peppers the professor about his journey. However, the adventurer still refuses.

After some time, the president himself asks Sherman about his trip. Even to the highest official in the land, Sherman still refuses to share his story. Nevertheless, the president kindly puts Professor Sherman on his presidential train to speed him off to San Francisco. 

When the residents of San Francisco hear this, they all begin to rejoice and prepare a massive celebration for his successful around-the-world balloon trip. The mayor buys lots of enormous balloons to fill the city. When Professor Sherman reaches San Francisco, he begins to tell his thrilling balloon journey.

He starts off by telling about his quest to stay afloat in a balloon for one year. He first builds a tiny suspended house for himself to live in, then flies far away. However, after many days in the sky, a seagull bursts a hole in his conveyance! He gradually throws everything in his ballon overboard. Falling quickly, the professor literally jumps on the deflating balloon and cuts the ropes holding his entire house! Noticing some sharks following him, he manages to maneuver his deflating balloon onto a tropical island. Exhausted from all this frantic work, he falls asleep on the beach. 

He wakes up being nudged by a surprisingly well-dressed, aristocratic man. The gentleman leads Sherman through a jungle and gives him luxurious clothes to wear. Then the ground starts shaking, and Sherman recognizes the island: Krakatoa. He runs to a bench and clings on as the ground rumbles up and down. The man, known as Mr. F, tells him that he has developed mountain legs and manages to stand even during the shaking. The professor, in contrast, immediately falls to the ground.

Mr. F shows Sherman around their fancy village, where all the houses look like they are all from a different county. Mr. F also informs Sherman that he must remain as a permanent guest due to the secrets of Krakatoa. Mr. F introduces Professor Sherman to the other families, who are each named after a letter. He also learns that the island families own a mine completely full of diamonds! Everyone on the island owns a share of the diamonds and together they’re the richest families in the world.

Sherman remains as a “guest” and as a resident, continues to learn about the island. He also learns of a balloon merry-go-around, which is like a normal merry-go-around, but also floats into the sky! But then something disastrous happens... 

To find out the rest of the fanciful story, read the Newbery Medal-winning book! 

Overall, this 1946 imaginative book is well worth the read. It is surprisingly well thought out and lots of little details make the tale fun to read. In addition to a rich backstory of the island and its odd residents, Pène du Bois incorporates many exciting points and suspense to create drama on the unique island. If you are a middle schooler who enjoys wild stories and delightful illustrations, this book is definitely worth the crazy ride!