Meghan’s Letter Essay #3: The Twenty-One Balloons


I recently finished reading The Twenty-One Balloons, a 180 page book written by William Péne du Bois. When he was seventeen, this book became his first publication. Péne du Bois has written many well-known childrens’ books including Bear in Mind, Otto and the Magic Potatoes, and Peter Graves.

The Twenty-One Balloons was called, “An absurd and fantastic tale … Truth and fiction are cleverly mingled,” by the Library Journal. In 1947, it won the Newbery Medal. I tried out this book because I read its blurb and found out that it was about someone getting stranded on an island. I decided to read this book because I usually enjoy reading books in which the character is lost or stranded because it means that they have to come up with interesting solutions (that create suspense) to escape.

Barely balancing on the line between realistic fiction and fantasy, this book is narrated by Professor William Waterman Sherman, who is bored of being around other people, so he sets up an enormous hot air balloon and small house for it to carry and for him to live inside. After stocking up on food, books, and other supplies, he plans on floating above the world for about a year. But when a seagull creates a tear in the balloon, Mr. Sherman crash lands on the volcanic, tropical island of Krakatoa, and must survive among its mysterious inhabitants.

I liked the way the author included weird inventions, because it made Krakatoa seem like an imaginative, almost dreamy place, even though the book is technically realistic fiction. For example, the balloon merry-go-round was very interesting. Created by the kids who lived on the island, Mr. Sherman described the invention with many details, “The boats were joined together to form the rim of a wheel. The poles going through the brass oarlocks of the boats formed the spokes of the wheel. The spokes were attached to a big, brass ring, or hub of the wheel, and this whole gigantic Merry-Go-Round revolved around a seventy-five foot pole which was pointing straight up to the sky and was threaded like a screw,” (p. 121). Eventually, the boats are lifted from the ground by enormous balloons, and they ascend up the large pole, until they leave the pole, and float in the air for a while. Soon, they land in water, separate the boats, and race to shore. Besides this interesting invention, the inhabitants also created other fascinating contraptions such as a bed that can move from a bedroom to the roof with the pull of a lever, and furniture that folds into the ground.

I didn’t agree with the idea that building a structure on a base made of diamonds would make the structure resistant to earthquakes. Around the middle of the book, Professor Sherman realizes, “I understood why the walls about be didn’t move, why the ceiling and ground beneath me didn’t budge … the walls, floor, the ceiling of this mine were hewn out of the hardest of all nature’s minerals: pure, clear, dazzling diamond,” (p. 69). While diamond is the hardest mineral, wouldn’t the ground around the diamonds during an earthquake still shake the diamonds?

If I were the author, I would have gotten to the climax a little earlier in the book. On page 159 out of 180, Mr. Sherman notices, “The wall opposite me slowly and almost noiselessly opened up in a crack large enough to allow the sun to shine through,” (p. 159-160). If the plot were more suspenseful, I do not think I would have minded the quick, twenty page ending as much. While one may consider the antagonist to be the characters’ greed, which kept them trapped on the island, all the characters got along with each other very well, so the only issue that put their lives in danger was the volcano eruption. Since they had already planned for the eruption, the evacuation of the island took only fifteen minutes of their fictional time (a couple pages). If I were the author, I would have put the climax earlier so that the characters’ escape was not as rushed.

Finally, I was interested in this passage, when the “bad guy” is revealed as Mr. F explains why Mr. Sherman must become a permanent guest on the island. William Péne du Bois writes:

“So now that you are here, you are automatically a citizen of Krakatoa. You own a share of the mines. If you could possibly spend the amount of money you are worth at the present cost of diamonds in other countries, you would have to spend a billion dollars a day for the rest of your life. But if you took your share of diamonds, loaded them on a freighter, and carried them with you to another country you would be making a big mistake. Diamonds are priced as high as they are because they are extremely rare jewels in other countries. Unloading a boatload of diamonds in any other port of the world would cause the diamond market to crash,” (p. 73-74).

This passage stood out to be because it highlights who/what the “bad guy” is. At first, since the island inhabitants seem to get along, and always be kind to each other, it is hard to tell who is the “evil one.” This passage makes it clear that greed itself is the antagonist. The characters are trapped on the island by their own greed, because they all know that in order to keep all their wealth, they must remain on the island forever, secretly. I thought that greed is an interesting antagonist to have, because in most of the books I read, the “bad guy” is a person or organization. While this book had some interesting ideas of inventions, it lacked the suspense I was looking for, and had rushed ending. I rate this book a six out of ten.

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5 thoughts on “Meghan’s Letter Essay #3: The Twenty-One Balloons

  1. Dear Meghan,
    I really liked your letter essay about the book The Twenty One Balloons. I really liked how when you said what you would do if you were the author you gave the part of the book you were taking it form. Overall I really like your letter essay and I can tell that you put a lot of time and effort into it.

  2. Dear Meghan,
    I really liked your letter essay about the book The Twenty One Balloons. I really liked how when you said what you would do if you were the author you gave the part of the book you were taking it form. I also liked how you used lots of detail in your writing Overall I really like your letter essay and I can tell that you put a lot of time and effort into it.

  3. Dear Meghan,

    I really enjoyed reading your letter essay. I like how many quotes from the book you pulled. This really helps prove your point in writing. I also like how descriptive you were throughout your letter essay. The Twenty One Balloons sounds like a good book, and I might give it a try.

    Amelia W.

  4. Dear Meghan,

    I really enjoyed reading your letter essay. One part that really stood out to me is the incredible description of the book and how you include your opinions but you justified them aswell. Every time you expressed an opinion you follewed it up with a “For example”. I think this is a great essay and it shows how much effort and thought you put into it.

  5. Dear Meghan,
    Fantastic job on your letter essay! I am definitely intrigued by your description of the story. I thought that one of the best parts of your letter essay was when you explained why you liked that the author included several bizarre inventions, therefore bringing the book to the cusp between realistic fiction and fantasy, as you pointed out. I also thought it was really clever to incorporate passages of writing into your regular paragraphs to demonstrate the point you were trying to prove. Overall, great job. I have to remember to pick up this book sometime!

    -Alexandra Popescu

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