When does science become most appealing? One arguable answer could be: when it is told through a story that is half based on verifiable principles, and half on utter, beautiful nonsense. The 21 Balloons, by William Pène du Bois, won the 1948 Newbery Medal with its equal parts of science and absurdity combined in a story about a runaway mathematics teacher, a ballooning adventure, and a castaway saga that one-ups Robinson Crusoe.
When Professor William Waterman Sherman is discovered floating in the Atlantic Ocean in the midst of wreckage that appears to have once been a platform attached to 20 balloons, the American public is shocked. The professor was last seen sailing out of San Francisco in a house attached to one giant, hot-air balloon, having sworn off teaching obnoxious grade-school boys in favor of a year of leisurely exploration. No one can guess how he ended up in the ocean between Europe and the U.S., and Sherman himself refuses to part his lips on the subject until he can tell his story in front of the Western American Explorer’s Club in his hometown of San Francisco! However, his account upon this occasion is so fantastical as to be almost unbelievable. The erstwhile arithmetic teacher spins a tale that involves disaster over the sea, sharks, unexpected rescue, an unbelievable discovery, an unimaginably large fortune, and the explosion of the mysterious Krakatoa, a volcanic island that hid more than coconuts in its tropic depths.
In this award-winning book, du Bois adeptly mixes the science of ballooning with a sly wit akin to Roald Dahl. Prepare to be entertained.