Twenty-One Balloons

The Twenty-One Balloons is a curious mixture of fantasy and fact.

“The best way of travel…, if you aren’t going in any hurry at all, if you don’t care where you are going, if you don’t like to use your legs, if you want to see everything quite clearly, if you don’t want to be annoyed at all by any choice of directions, is in a balloon…you can decide only when to start, and usually when to stop.  The rest is left entirely to nature.  How fast you will go and where is left to the winds.”

“A balloon is a wonderful way to travel, particularly if you want to travel from home to school.  On your way, many delightful things can happen, such as:

  1. the wind will be calm and you’ll never get to school.
  2. The wind will blow you in the wrong direction and take you fifty miles out into the country away from school, and
  3. You might decide to play hookey, just once, and nobody can bother you in a balloon.

So Professor William Waterman Sherman constructs a balloon, suspends a basket cabin from it, and takes off—

Part of the fun of this book  is solving the riddle of what’s true, what’s fiction.  The happy colonists using diamonds as foundations for their homes and children racing around the living room on electrified chairs are, as you would guess, fiction.  The French balloonist Gaspar Felix Tournachon, known as “Nadar,” was a real person.  In 1858 he took the first aerial photograph.  He did fly an enormous balloon named Le Géant.

With history (and added fantasy), the plot of The Twenty-One Balloons blows up on an island named Krakatoa.  Google that!

Colin Fischer

From Colin Fischer’s notebook:

“Our neighbors once witnessed me take a metal mixing bowl and some household chemicals into the garage.  After hearing a loud bang, they called the police, assuming I was attempting to manufacture drugs…What the neighbors didn’t know and my father eventually confirmed for the police was the truth:  I was trying to work out the principles of explosive pulse propulsion in spacecraft for a science project.  The police laughed, although my father made me spend a month’s allowance to replace the bowl.”

Remember Encyclopedia Brown?  The ten-year-old boy detective?  I didn’t discover him until our grandson showed me one of the 28 Encyclopedia Brown books, and then Grandpa and I shared those stories.

Colin Fischer is 14 and a high school freshman.  Most of his classmates think he’s weird because he doesn’t think or react the way most kids do.  Colin can’t “read” facial expressions the way most of us do, so he keeps index cards with smiley and other faces to help him figure out whether someone is joking, or scared, or angry, or what.  Because he collects facts the way you might collect stamps or baseball cards, and because he’s curious about the ways other people behave, he finds out who shot off the gun at a birthday party.

This book is a window into the mind of a “different” kid.  There’s a bully, there are friends, and there are kids who become better friends.   The book ends with hints of trouble yet to come from the perpetrator of the crime, and I’d like to see how Colin’s conflict with his little brother turns out, but there isn’t a sequel–not yet…

Colin Fischer isn’t a quick read like the Encyclopedia Brown books. There’s one mystery (but several problems) solved in a full-length book for teen readers.  The book is a bonus if you like odd facts, like the swimming patterns of hammerhead sharks or what is the Kuleshov effect.

Derek of “Two Roads”

Derek cut into his second pork chop.  This summer of stacking hay bales and shuffling milking machines from cow to cow on Don Bradford’s farm—because that’s how the Bradfords keep their foster sons busy—he’d grown from men’s small to medium shirts and Jean lengthened his jeans twice.   Food tastes great when Mom isn’t dishing it up with complaints about how hard she works to feed Derek and Nate, and now that she married Bruce, dinner is when they jump on Derek for cutting school, bad progress reports, and whatever he did or didn’t do.

Then Don Bradford turned the pork chop to leather.   “You guys ready for school? Bus stops at 7:40.”

Derek’s stomach cramped up tighter than when Jean bought school supplies last week.

One more try. “If I quit school I could change your corrugates all the time. You know I work good.”  Don and Jean shook their heads.

Derek had to eat the chop he’d taken—a rule that didn’t normally bother him—but he chewed one small bite at a time to get it down and make it stay there.  Jean raised her eyebrows but kept her mouth shut until the others boys scraped their plates and piled them in the sink.  She sent Billy and Bob upstairs to put on pajamas before Monday Night Football—Cowboys vs. Rams tonight.

“I need you to give me a hand, Derek—just a couple of minutes.  James, see if Don has the pre-game on.”   When she didn’t scold Derek for leaving too much meat on his chop, he knew he was in for it.

“I used to hate the first few days of school.” Jean squirted dish soap into the pan of hot water. “New classes, new teachers. But you got through sophomore year even when things were falling apart at home. With all that, you passed. You can do it, Derek. We’ll help.” Her voice lowered, slowed. “—at least as long as you’re with us.”

Henry and Beezus: Beverly Cleary

I didn’t meet Henry Huggins and Ramona Quimby when I was growing up.  Fortunately I haven’t outgrown children’s books.  Now I am enjoying Beverly Cleary’s books about Henry, Beezus, and Ramona.

Henry wants a bicycle.  I have heard the answer from Henry’s parents myself, and as a parent I’ve had to tell our children the same:  “I wish you [had one] too…but with prices and taxes going up all the time, I’m afraid we can’t give you one this year.”

So Henry, with help from his friend Beezus and interference from her little sister Ramona, tries to earn his bike.   Along the way, teachers have a huge problem with bubble gum, Henry finds out how dog food tastes, and his school mates won’t let him forget about his coupon for free false eyelashes.