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Top 100 Children’s Novels #64: The Twenty-One Balloons by William Pene du Bois

#64 The Twenty-One Balloons by William Pene du Bois (1947)
32 points

A great adventure story, with a different kind of hero. Professor Sherman is a misanthrope (could he be one of the first anti-heroes?), and just wants to get away from it all (and I love him for it). Also unique in that the whole story is told as a talk to his club. When people are looking for a “classic book”, I always recommend this. – Kyle Wheeler

Who wouldn’t want to visit the fantasy of Krakatoa described by Pene du Bois? – Laurie Zaepfel

Sacre bleu!  A Newbery Award winner in the flesh!  One that I am pleased to report does very well indeed in the library these days.  Kids like checking it out and, I dare say, there may even be a couple that enjoy reading it too.  And why not?  This book has it all.  Crazy inventions.  Diamonds.  A huge explosion.  The works!

The description of the plot from Anita Silvey’s Everything I Need to Know I Learned From a Children’s Book reads, “Although Professor William Waterman Sherman travels around the world in forty days, he began his expedition in 1883 as a leisurely balloon flight, a way to distance himself from all the students who had plagued him over the years.  He experiences a week of idyllic ballooning, until a sea gull destroys his conveyance and sends him plummeting to earth.  Upon awakening, the Professor asks, ‘Is this Heaven,’ only to be told, ‘this isn’t Heaven.  This is the Pacific Island of Krakatoa.’  Three days before its historic eruption, the island might be mistaken for paradise.  The professor marvels at the amazing community built there, funded by a diamond mine on the island.  But eventually all the inhabitants must flee, on a well-constructed balloon-propelled platform.”

Fascinatingly, the book proved to be the inspiration for more than just a few hopes and dreams.  On her Children’s Book-a-Day Almanac Anita Silvey reports that, “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.”

One of the more amusing facts about the book is that it has a strange number of similarities to a certain F. Scott Fitzgerald short story A Diamond as Big as the Ritz.  But before we start calling out the plagiarism police you should know that du Bois acknowledges this fact in Twenty-One Balloons itself.  He writes that the story was “not only quite similar in general plot, but was also altogether a collection of very similar ideas.”  What amused him so much was that, “the fact that F. Scott Fitzgerald and I apparently would spend our billion in like ways right down to being dumped from bed into a bathtub is, quite frankly, beyond my explanation.”

The book has been a little more high profile lately thanks in part to its appearance on the show Mad Men.  That Sally Draper.  Always with the reading.  My buddy Billy Parrott keeps strict tabs on all the Mad Men books and, as you can see, Sally was definitely reading herself a little William Pene du Bois not long ago . . .

Be sure to check out the 100 Scope Notes reinterpretation of the cover.  Or, failing that, this one.  Or, failing that, all of these:

Finally, the best video I could possibly include is the amazing, wonderful, fantastic production by Elephant and Worm made for the 90-Second Newbery Film Festival.  I love these songs.

About Elizabeth Bird

Elizabeth Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.


  1. Correction: “Sacre bleu! A Caldecott Award winner in the flesh” should be a Newbery winner, yes? Although he did win 2 Caldecott Honors, so he was obviously a very talented fellow. And this has always been one of my favorites.

  2. What age group is this appropriate for/popular with?

    • Elizabeth Bird says

      Appropriate for 9-12 year olds. Popular with? A much harder call, I think.