Hot Air

Newberys Read This Year: 12

Newberys Left for Goal: 3

Newberys Left for Total: 17


Book:The Twenty-One Balloons* by William Pène du Bois

Audience: C

Genre: Fantasy

Rating: One Book.jpgOne Book.jpgOne Book.jpg

Sometimes I choose which Newbery to read next based on the last one I read. For example, if I just finished one with a female main character, I might choose an animal or male protagonist for the next. If I’ve just completed a fantasy novel, I might choose historical fiction next, and so on. No such considerations went into choosing my reading of this novel, since I had absolutely no idea what it was about. And now that I’ve finished it, I have to say it somewhat defies classification. The protagonist is definitely male, but the genre is a bit murkier. I chose fantasy, but if I could, I would create a new genre, whimsical.

In October of 1883, Professor William Waterman Sherman is rescued from the Atlantic Ocean by an American freighter, and is found surrounded by 20 balloons. The professor, a devoted (if honorary) member of Western American Explorer’s Club, gained a bit of press 2 months earlier when he began his attempt to cross the Pacific Ocean (leaving from San Francisco) by means of one hot air balloon. He refuses to tell his story to anyone other than the members of his club. Once he finally returns to San Francisco, he happily regales the club, the press, and the readers of this book, with his account of his adventures.

And such adventures they were. After designing and constructing a balloon, complete with a house containing a mattress, porch, and library (!), planning his route and gathering his provisions, the Professor leaves San Francisco in August. But on the seventh day, catastrophe strikes: approaching an island, he is greeted by a swarm of seagulls who manage to puncture his balloon. Realizing that landing on the island is his only option for survival, the Professor strategically unloads the contents of his balloon to lower his altitude in time to relatively safely crash-land on the volcanic island of Krakatoa.

There he unexpectedly meets a whole colony of people. They are very structured, very organized, and very committed to their way of life. They decide to allow Professor Sherman to join their society, which he happily does, although he is not personally pledged to remain with them forever. That becomes a moot point, however, when the volcano on the island erupts and the settlement is forced to employ their evacuation plan, which ultimately leaves the Professor stranded alone in the Atlantic with those 20 balloons.

Earlier, I said that wanted to create a new genre called whimsical for this book. I say that because the Professor is a bit of a whimsical mix of politeness, extreme self-confidence, misanthropy, and inventiveness. He is the stereotypically stuffy Victorian but is just odd enough to be likeable. The Krakatoans share his sense of propriety and his oddness, albeit their oddness is of a slightly different kind. All this whimsy is intriguing, especially since it disguises the fact that this is arguably a science fiction novel.

One of the trademarks of science fiction, a particular subset of fantasy, is the use of future technology, and that is the element that is questionable here. I’m not sure if the methods the Krakatoans used to build their houses or if some of the features of their houses were technologically possible at time in which the story is set. The element not in question is the existence of a utopian/dystopian society, which the Krakatoans most certainly are: each member was specifically chosen to be part of the society, the family structure is identical (father, mother, son, daughter), each has a specific function within the community, and each member puts the needs of the community above the needs of the individual. This is classic sci-fi. The Krakatoans also specifically chose to cut themselves off from the rest of the world, have a distrust of strangers (including the Professor), stipulate that the Professor join their group according to their rules, blithely insist that their way of life is the only one worth living, and inform Professor Sherman that he cannot leave on his own volition. Very classic sci-fi.

Yet it is sci-fi hidden under all the overly polite manners, the congenial eccentricities of the characters, and the Victorian, formalized way of speaking. In other words, secreted under the whimsy. So deep under it all, that I didn’t see it as sci-fi until after I finished the book and just started thinking about it. To me, this just shows how clever Mr. Pène du Bois is. He uses the outsized personalities of his characters and the utopia/dystopia motif to be critical of society (a standard theme of sci-fi), all the while setting up affable characters and absurd situations that young readers are bound to enjoy. I suppose he created his own new genre, whimsical sci-fi.

As for me, I only enjoyed it to a certain extent. When I read it, I thought it was OK, but not really a story for me. No wonder, since I don’t really care for sci-fi. This might have been, however, from what I can tell by perusing the winner’s list, the first sci-fi book to capture the Newbery, and a rather clever one since it’s so subtly done. The story may have had too much hot air for me, but, after all, it’s an ill wind that doesn’t blow some good.

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