By William Pène du Bois
I once took a class in Oceanography; the class was incredible and the professor was very energetic and animated. During one of our classes he discussed Krakatoa and its famous volcanic eruption in 1883. I was fascinated! Many years later I found myself picking up a copy of The Twenty-One Balloons, a fictional story which takes place (mostly) on the island of Krakatoa, just days before the famous explosion.
William Pène du Bois (1916-1993) was both a writer and an illustrator. In addition to winning the Newbery award for The Twenty-One Balloons, he also won a Caldecott Honor in 1951 for Bear Party and again in 1957 for Lion. His captivating writing and imaginative stories, combined with his elaborate illustrations, make for absorbing and entertaining books.
Professor William Waterman Sherman has recently retired from teaching. He’s built an extravagant hot air balloon, packed provisions for a year, and plans a nice, long, quiet adventure around the world. His departure is met with little fanfare. In fact, only four of his closest friends arrive to see him off. But three weeks later, when a steamship picks up Professor Sherman floating amongst twenty balloons in the Atlantic Ocean, the whole world wants to hear his story.
Professor Sherman insists he will only reveal the details of his short, but fascinating, adventure in front of the Western American Explorers’ Club in San Francisco, of which he is an honorary member. He even turns down a visit to the White House to share his story with the president himself! Undeterred, the president offers his personal train to transport the Professor to San Francisco. Thus, the whole world must wait the five days it takes to cross the country before they can hear the tale of wonder.
And a tale of wonder it is! Just seven days into his voyage, Sherman’s balloon is brought down by a flock of hungry seagulls. Fortunately, just before the fateful seagull incident, he’d spotted an island in the distance. As it is his only hope of survival, he dumps all his belongings from the balloon, and gains just enough height and speed to reach the island before he crashes. Battered and exhausted, he immediately falls asleep on the beach.
Hours later he is awakened by a well-dressed man, known as Mr. F, who offers fresh clothes and informs Sherman of his whereabouts—he’s landed on the island of Krakatoa, long believed to be uninhabited. Much to his surprise, Sherman soon learns that Krakatoa is home to twenty families.
Eight years prior, after surviving a shipwreck, Mr. M found himself on the island and soon discovered the island’s vast diamond mines. Mr. M gathers some diamonds, fashions a raft and sets sail. A ship headed for the US soon picks him up. He arrives in San Francisco, sells his diamonds and chooses twenty families to bring back to Krakatoa. In addition to having creative talents, each family chosen must have one boy and one girl between the ages of three and eight, and all the families would share the vast wealth of the diamond mines.
The new inhabitants set up a “restaurant government” with every family running their own establishment. Each family is assigned a letter of the alphabet; the corresponding letter becomes not only the family’s surname but also correlates to a cultural style, though technically all the families come from America. The A family represents America, cooking and serving only American food and designing their house in an American style. The D family is Dutch, the E family Egyptian and the T family Turkish.
“We made it law here that every family shall go to a different restaurant every night of the month, around the village square in rotation. In this way no family of Krakatoa has to work more than once every twenty days, and every family is assured a great variety of food.”
Together they have built large, elaborate homes for each family, full of amenities and inventions the world has never seen. They have also made plans for quick evacuation should it ever be necessary to leave the island. That necessity proves true just three days after Professor Sherman’s arrival. As the volcano begins to erupt, the families go into full evacuation mode.
The inhabitants of the island safely depart on a giant platform equipped with twenty hot air balloons, which they themselves have designed. As they drift over land, one by one, the families jump from the platform, outfitted with carefully connected parachutes.
Professor Sherman, having no parachute of his own, is the last one on the platform as it lands in the ocean, soon to be discovered by a passing steamship.
The Twenty-One Balloons is a fantastic book, whether read aloud and shared with the whole family or read quietly alone.
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