Years ago, when I was a young and enthusiastic new student at university, I went along to the Freshers’ fair. The Freshers’ fair was a gathering of all the social groups organised by the students of the university, each one promising fun, frolics and a ready-made circle of friends if you joined up. Did I join the film society? The netball team? The quiz club? Nope, somehow, I was persuaded to join the ballooning society. I guess I just liked the idea of sailing around the skies of England on hot days, eating cucumber sandwiches and drinking Pimms. It sounded fun, yet peaceful.
I’m not the only one to be entranced by the idea of ballooning. From the very first flight in 1783, it captivated the public’s interest and imagination. Newspapers couldn’t get enough of it, and people turned out in droves to see balloonists taking off and attempting new records. Balloons began to appear on everything, from clothing to furniture. And of course, they began to appear in literature. Books have possibly done more than anything to perpetuate the appeal of ballooning, and stories are still being published today which use ballooning as a theme. After exploring some vintage books featuring balloon travel, you can see why the theme appeals. Balloons allow you to explore far flung places, meet new people, escape the hustle and bustle of daily life, gain fame and fortune and, in some cases, rescue your friends from peril.
However, it isn't all blue skies. Balloons in these stories are frequently shot down, set upon by birds, caught in storms or they run out of gas. They are also seriously unpredictable, being blown off course, carrying people away by accident, tipping folk out, or stranding them in faraway places. Perhaps it's a good thing then that in three years at university, I never once got to go up in a balloon. Not once. I should probably get my subscription fee back.
There are a surprising number of air balloons in children's literature. Here are a few I found...
Twelve books featuring air balloons
1. Five Weeks in a Balloon (Jules Verne, 1863)
Jules Verne possibly did more to spread balloon mania than any other writer. In his first published work Dr Samuel Fergusson sets out to travel across Africa in a hydrogen filled balloon. He and his ‘manservant’ Joe see a lot of interesting sights and find the source of the Nile, but also have to face many difficulties including running out of water, and being attacked by vultures.
Availability: Find it for free via project Gutenberg here.
2. The Mysterious Island (Jules Verne, 1875)
Verne’s sort-of sequel to Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Seas also starts with a balloon. Five prisoners of the American Civil War escape the Siege of Petersberg (in Virginia) using a hydrogen balloon. They get caught in a storm and later crash land on a volcanic island, which is seemingly uninhabited. Or is it…?
Availability: Also free via project Gutenberg here.
3. Tom Sawyer Abroad (Mark Twain, 1894)
Even Mark Twain jumped aboard the balloon craze. I actually had no idea that there were two further Tom Sawyer books following on from The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876) and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884). Here, Tom is once again restless for new adventures, and travels in a hot air balloon to Africa with Huck and Jim. There they get into the same sort of bother we have come to expect of them, but with lions, pyramids and the Nile instead of con artists, farms and the Mississippi. I haven’t read this one, but given the fact that this book isn’t nearly as well known as the first two, I’m guessing the concept didn’t really work that well.
Availability: Still available in print or for free via Project Gutenberg here.
4. The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (L. Frank Baum, 1900)
A classic example of an uncontrollable balloon; this one stranded the Wizard in Oz many years before Dorothy’s arrival.
“one day, I went up in a balloon and the ropes got twisted, so that I couldn’t come down again. It went way up above the clouds, so far that a current of air struck it and carried it many, many miles away. For a day a night I travelled through the air, and on the morning of the second day I awoke and found the balloon floating over a strange and beautiful country.”
As I'm sure you know, Oz attempts to take Dorothy back to her home to Kansas in the balloon at the end of the book. However, his years in Oz have sadly not improved his ballooning skills and he drifts off without her, leaving her to use the ruby slippers instead.
Availability: You can find a print copy just about everywhere. Or get a digital copy for free here.
5. Uncle Wiggly’s Airship (Howard R. Garis, 1915)
Uncle Wiggly was a very popular children’s book character in the United States, but I’m not sure he ever made much impact here in the UK. Howard R. Garis apparently wrote about a story about the elderly rabbit every day except Sundays for over 52 years! In this book of stories, Uncle Wiggly makes himself an airship by tying a load of balloons onto an old basket. Being rather lame with rheumatism, he thinks it will be a pleasant way to travel around. However, if the first few stories are anything to go by, the airship isn’t exactly smooth sailing... It was interesting to be introduced to such a prolific author that I had never heard of, but I have to say, I only read a couple of the stories before I got a bit bored.
Availability: Print copies do exist secondhand if you dig, digital copy available here.
6. The Travels of Babar (Jean De Brunhoff, 1931)
Babar and his wife Celeste set off on their honeymoon in a balloon, but things do not go according to plan. First they are almost eaten by ‘savage cannibals’, though since they are human and Babar is an elephant, it seems a bit unfair to label them as such. Then have to escape from the circus, before returning home to a war with the Rhinos. There’s a lot of controversy surrounding Babar these days due to the depiction of African natives and the romanticising of colonialism, but he still seems to have an enduring appeal.
Availability: Used copies are fairly easy to find. You can borrow a digital copy from the Internet Archive here.
7. The Twenty-One Balloons (William Pene Du Bois, 1947)
I had never heard of this book before I started writing this post, but it actually won the Newbery Medal in 1948. It’s about a retired school teacher who sets off on a balloon trip for the peace and quiet. However, his balloon is shot down and he ends up stranded on the island of Krakatoa. There he finds a secret community living in houses with elaborate inventions and feeding each other different cuisines in their many different restaurants. Of course, Krakatoa suffers a well-known fate, so the latter part of the book covers the islanders elaborate escape (also by balloon) before the volcano engulfs them… Honestly, it is such a shame that this book is not more widely know because it is wonderful.
Availability: Deservedly still in print from Penguin, used copies are very inexpensive. Or borrow here.
8. Freddy and the Perilous Adventure (Walter R. Brooks, 1962)
Freddy the Pig was the star of no less than 26 adventure books by Walter R. Brooks, written between 1949 and 1958. They were hugely popular in the United States, but, much like Uncle Wiggly, not so well know in the UK. The books all went out of print in the 1960s, and the originals will set you back a pretty penny. However, they were apparently so much missed that some of them have now been republished, and some are available on Amazon Kindle. I didn’t manage to read this one, but apparently Freddy and his friends go up in a fairground balloon and can’t get down. Some kind of convoluted adventure ensues and they eventually return home and sue the balloon’s owner for damages.
Availability: Print copies are sparce, but you can borrow a copy from the Internet Archive here.
9. The Hartwarp Balloon (John Pudney, 1963)
Ever heard of John Pudney? Nope, me neither. I stumbled across this one, which is actually one of around seven books based in the fictional village of Hartwarp. The books have seemingly been completely forgotten, having not a single rating on Goodreads between them. In this one, Hartwarp’s resident engineers/inventors build an air balloon for a joy ride and end up getting into a spot of bother at Buckingham Palace. Possibly due to its obscurity, I was expecting the story to be a bit pants, but I was pleasantly surprised! It was lots of fun, and had a great deal of warm humour to it. I’m definitely tempted to track down the other Hartwarp titles.
Availability: Secondhand copies are around, but aren't cheap. Try hunting here.
10. Black Hearts in Battersea (Joan Aiken, 1964)
The loose sequel to The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, which features a boy called Simon who gets embroiled in a plot to overthrow the king. The story is much too convoluted to relate here, but it ends with a hot air balloon rescuing a bunch of people from a burning castle. As I remember, the book was a bit slow to start and I didn’t enjoy it as much as Willoughby Chase. However, it was quite entertaining on the whole.
Availability: Still available in print, or you can borrow a copy here.
11. Voyage of Barracks (Stuart Petrie, 1967)
Another absolutely wonderful book, more or less lost to the depths of time. This one is completely out of print, and really hard to get hold of, which is such a shame. Unless it’s a massive coincidence, the writers of Disney’s Up! Clearly had a copy to hand, as it bears a lot of similarities. The Gunn family live a quiet, orderly life in their beloved home (named Barracks) until they are disturbed by the building of a concrete factory next door. They attach balloons to their house and drift off to find somewhere better to live. They try out all sorts of locations, including a jungle, a desert, the Acropolis in Athens and the snowy peaks of Switzerland. All sorts of adventures befall them on their travels, until they (inevitably) return to England. Loved it.
Availability: Of all the books on the list, this one was the hardest book to track down. It's well worth it, but good luck!
12. Northern Lights (Philip Pullman, 1995)
The first book in His Dark Materials series sees protagonist Lyra escaping in an air balloon, until she falls out and gets captured by someone else. I read this book a long time ago, and don’t really remember much about it, other than the fact that I was completely underwhelmed. I know a lot of people really like the series, but it wasn’t one that I really enjoyed all that much.
Availability: Easy to find in print, or from your local library.
So there you go - that's my list of air balloons in children's literature. I’m sure there are plenty I haven’t discovered, but that’s my list of ballooning in children’s literature. I will try to write some more detailed reviews of some of these books when I can!
Some of you are probably wondering why on earth I have missed out one of the most iconic ballooning stories ever: Around the World in 80 Days by Jules Verne (1872). Afterall, you only have to search for the book online to be presented with any number of editions featuring a balloon on the cover. However, the balloon only became associated with the story after the 1956 movie starring David Niven, but Phileas Fogg never actually travels in a balloon in the book. Quite sensible if you ask me. Given everything that seems to go wrong with them, he probably never would have made it had he taken that option.
Have you read any of these books? Are there any obvious (or obscure) books that I've missed? Let me know in the comments!