• Happy birthday John Neufeld (Lisa, Bright and Dark).
  • It’s the birth date of Rosemary Sutcliff (1920–1992) Eagle of the Ninth.
  • Happy birthday also to Alabama, which became the twenty-second state in 1819. Hence, it’s Alabama Day. Read Alabama Moon by Watt Key.
  • In 1911 Roald Amundsen, Olav Bjaaland, Helmer Hanssen, Sverre Hassel, and Oscar Wisting become the first team to reach the South Pole. Read Race to the South Pole: The Antarctic Challenge, edited by Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr.

On December 14, 1782, the Montgolfier brothers’ first balloon lifted off on its first test flight. Later they would conduct public demonstrations, taking a thirty-three-foot diameter balloon aloft for about ten minutes. From this humble beginning, humans sailing the skies in a hot-air balloons became a possibility.

William Waterman Sherman, the protagonist of the Newbery Medal book The Twenty-One Balloons by William Pène du Bois, has been teaching arithmetic to boys for forty years in San Francisco: “Forty years of spitballs. Forty years of glue on my seat.” So at the age of sixty-six, he retires, builds a hot-air balloon, and sets off to sail around the world.

But as he soon discovers, being airborne produces other problems besides spitballs. Seagulls start to eat on his balloon and create a huge hole. After he plummets into the sea, he finds shelter on an island beach. This is not just any island, but the remarkable island of Krakatoa, built on the wealth of massive diamond mines. The island seems like paradise: the residences have constructed amazing homes, each one organized around the architecture of a different county, and filled them with conveniences. Their beds, for instance, have sheets that mechanically change every day and get washed, dried, and pressed. After a life of service, the professor might well have lived a life of luxury. But as is always true, timing is everything—because he has landed three days before a volcano erupts on the island of Krakatoa. Science, invention, fantasy, science fiction, and action all come together in a book that moves from one amazing plot detail to another.

Children’s books change lives. When another great teacher, Dr. Jerry J. Mallett took his first course in children’s literature, he read The Twenty-One Balloons and became enchanted with Pène du Bois’s pencil illustrations for the book. This led him to other picture books, and he began purchasing illustrations from those books. Today the Mazza Museum of International Art from Picture Books in Findlay, Ohio, contains this early collection as well as thousands of other pieces added over the years. As Dr. Mallett says in Everything I Need to Know I Learned from a Children’s Book, “it is never too late to have your life changed by a children’s book.”

So if you want to read a ripping- good story, pick up The Twenty-One Balloons. Even if it doesn’t change your life, it will certainly keep you engaged with its humor and panache.

Here’s a passage from The Twenty-One Balloons:


I shook my head and opened my eyes again. There was a man kneeling over me. As I sat up he stood up. He was handing me some clothes, and he was dressed in a most unusual manner. This man wasn’t a native, and didn’t suggest an explorer or a traveler. He looked like an overdressed aristocrat, sort of a misplace boulevardier, lost on this seemingly desolate volcanic island. He was wearing a correctly tailored white morning suit—if you can imagine such a suit—with pin-stripe pants, white ascot tie, and white cork bowler. The suit he was urging me to put on was just the same as the one he had on, only my size.

“Am I dead?” I asked. “Is this Heaven?”

“No, my good man,” he answered. “This isn’t Heaven. This is the Pacific Island of Krakatoa.”


Originally posted December 14, 2010. Updated for .

Tags: Adventure, Award Winning, Humor, Newbery, Technology
Instructional materials from TeachingBooks.net for The Twenty-One Balloons


  1. Karen Smith says:

    I had the good fortune to spend a week at the Mazza Museum a few summers ago attending fabulous workshops with authors and illustrators. The museum is well worth the trip. I hope to return soon!
    Speaking of the Montgolfier brothers’ test flight, I enjoy reading the Caldecott Honor Book, Hot Air : The Mostly True Story of the First Hot-Air Balloon Ride by Marjorie Priceman, to my students each year. Three farmyard animals were the first to go up!

    Thank you for this wonderful resource, Anita!

  2. Anita says:


    Thanks for reminding everyone of Hot Air and the Mazza Museum. The summer conference at Mazza is one of the best in the country — and the Museum itself a fabulous place to visit. I get to go next summer, and I am already excited about it.


  3. I have to read it. Sounds great!!
    As a children book illustrator, I’m happy when Dr. Mallett says “it is never too late to have your life changed by a children’s book.”

    Children Books are not only for kids,hey are for the kid in all of us. At least some people recognize that.

  4. Jill Casey says:

    I agree totally with Alexandre about Children’s Books. Why should we ever give up something so wonderful?

  5. Ashley Gietler says:

    I have read this book with my 5th grade class in a reading group and is a thrilling and exciting book!
    I suggest this book to other teachers

  6. Dan says:

    I read this book many times over the years with my 6th graders. It brings back great memories of balloons, inventions, diamonds, a very interesting calendar, and a huge explosion!

  7. G. Perry says:

    Yes. I read this one sometime after the review and I loved it. It has that golden glow of aged sweetness, simplicity and charm which shine from certain books written back then, which I really enjoy. ( Rabbit Hill by Robert Lawson which Anita introduced me to.) comes to mind as having that same glow.

    I’ll take all the ‘glow’ I can get in these books, and Anita is THE expert in children’s books that glow.

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