Module 4 — Newbery Winners


The Twenty-One Balloons by William Pene du Bois

Module 4 — Newbery Winner


Pene du Bois, W.  (1947).  The Twenty-One Balloons.  New York, NY: Viking Press.


This book tells the story of a disgruntled math teacher who decides to retire and take a great adventure.  The teacher manufactures a gigantic balloon and sets out on what is planned to be a year-long trip around the world.  In the midst of his journey he is forced to crash land on the island of Krakatoa, which is in the world of this book the home of a wealthy, secretive, ingenious and bizarre civilization.   The professor escape with the inhabitants of Krakatoa when the volcano erupts.  They flee the volcano with a special platform, created for the occassion, that is taken airborne by twenty balloons, leading to the professor’s ultimate discovery and rescue in the Atlantic.

My Impressions

I was reminded of Roald Dahl throughout the beginning of the book, and I wonder if Dahl read and was perhaps influenced by Pene du Bois.  Although I didn’t find the book’s ending was very strong, I really enjoyed both the writing and the illustrations (both by Pene du Bois).  I think this is a very creative book but I think its appeal could not be as broad as that of similar works by Sid Fleischman or Roald Dahl.  Kids who are big fans of Dahl, however, I think would probably appreciate and enjoy this book.


Beavin, K. (1998). The twenty-one balloons [Review of the book The twenty-one balloons]. Horn Book Magazine, 74, 765.
McDonough narrates this broadly fantastical tale with deliberate, almost stately self-importance, an approach that suits both the main character, the stuffy Professor William Waterman Sherman, as well as the late nineteenth-century setting. Particularly noteworthy are his evocations of the wealth of details used to enrich the plot. Unskillful narrators and long descriptive passages are a combination that can easily create mind-drift in listeners, a problem that McDonough circumvents masterfully. His confidence in the inherent interest of these descriptive passages-which not only complementthe drama of the adventure but also give substance and reality to the fantasy — is a testimonial to his skill and experience as a narrator.

Garness, S. (1987). William (Sherman) Pene Du Bois. In G.E. Estes (Series Ed.), Dictionary of Literary Biography. Vol. 61. American writers for children since 1960: Poets, illustrators, and nonfiction authors. (pp. ?). Detroit: Gale Research.

Professor William Waterman Sherman plans to escape his dull life as a teacher of arithmetic by sailing off in a huge hot-air balloon to remain aloft for a year. Unfortunately his balloon is punctured and he crashes on Krakatoa Island, where he discovers a colony of Americans living a life of luxury made possible by the existence of a fabulous diamond mine on the island. The diamonds must be kept secret in order to preserve their value on the world market, so Professor Sherman prepares to spend the rest of his life on the island. Only days after his arrival, the very active volcano on the island erupts, a disaster for which the Krakatoans had prepared by inventing an escape vehicle in the form of a large platform to be carried aloft by twenty hot-air balloons. All manage to escape safely, but because Professor Sherman is the only one who does not have a parachute, he must crash-land the platform in the ocean after all of the others have jumped off. He is picked up by a passing freighter, is given a hero’s welcome, and tells his story to the world.

The humor of The Twenty-One Balloons is satirical rather than absurd, a new development in Pène du Bois’s style. The people who are anxious to welcome Professor Sherman back after his adventures show themselves to be foolish and pompous in their attempts to vie for his attention and the honor of being seen with him in public. Pène du Bois also makes a comment on the irony that human greed enslaves the wealthy so that the covetous Americans must live on top of an active volcano in order to be near their diamonds. But though they are foolish or greedy, Pène du Bois’s characters are not evil; even the Krakatoans, anxious to guard the secret of their fabulous wealth, do not kill Professor Sherman or make him their prisoner, but rather allow him to live with them as their equal, participating in their “gourmet government” and helping in the invention of many wonderful mechanical devices to make their lives more comfortable.

Using in the Library

The book’s Professor Sherman is hailed as a record-setting adventurer.  Many world records involve various types of transportation and involve such factors as speed and endurance.  Assign students to use library resources other than the internet to find world records related to transportation, travel, or exploration.  Students can then create a poster for display in the library.  The poster could be a timeline, an illustration, or a student-written newspaper account of the event.

A Visit to William Blake’s Inn by Nancy Willard

Module 4 — Newbery Winner


Willard, Nancy.  (1981).  A Visit to William Blake’s Inn.  New York, NY: Harcourt Brace.


This book takes an inventive approach in introducing kids to the visionary poet and artist William Blake.  Visiting a fictional inn run by William Blake, the reader sees a world in which it’s not unusual to encounter angels and dragons, talk with bears and tigers, or play host to the King of Cats or the man in the marmalade hat.  The book’s witty rhyming verse tells the story of a visit to the inn, and the beautiful illustrations complete the fantastical world of a poet’s vivid imagination and his gift for sharing his unique vision.

My Impressions

I love the illustrations and the poetry in this fun and creative book.  I’m not sure how the author came up with the idea of William Blake having an inn, but it’s a fun concept and I’m sure that an inn run by William Blake would have been an interesting place indeed.


[Review of William Blake’s inn, by N. Willard]. (1981, Sept. 1). Kirkus Reviews, 49, ?.

Unquestionably a labor of love, this is set in an inn presided over by William Blake. There, dragons bake the bread, angels shake the featherbeds, a tiger, a rabbit, a bear, and other animals fill the rooms, sunflowers request “a room with a view,” and the only human guests we’re introduced to are the little-boy narrator and “the man in the marmalade hat”–who arrives “equipped with a bottle of starch/ to straighten the bends in the road,” then proceeds to ask for “a room at the top.” The first of Willard’s 16 verses begins, “This inn belongs to William Blake/ and many are the beasts he’s tamed/ and many are the stars he’s named/ and many those who stop and take/ their joyful rest with William Blake.” The verses are laced with fancies but formally tidy, as are the Provensens’ charming period illustrations, which give a quaint prim cast to such dreamlike phenomena as a flying carriage, a breakfast table balanced on a rooftop (breakfast is “on the house”), and a parade of animals through the milky way, led by Blake, with the little boy astride the tiger. It’s just as well that the Provensens’ manner is poles apart from the visionary intensity of Blake’s, but one wonders how Blake’s work would inspire Willard to invoke his image and meter to such whimsical purpose. Still, the book is a visual pleasure, even beyond the illustrations, and the poetry accomplished, perhaps enchanting–as in ” ‘Where did you sleep last night, Wise Cow?/ Where did you lay your head?’//’I caught my horn on a rolling cloud/ and made myself a bed,// and in the morning, ate it raw/ on freshly buttered bread.’ ” It’s a question of sensibility.

Vousden, E.C., & Ingram, L. (1986). Nancy Willard. In G.E. Estes (Series Ed.), Dictionary of literary biography: Vol. 52. American writers for children since 1960: Fiction (pp. ?). Detroit: Gale Research.

Though her contribution to children’s literature consists primarily of several picture books and the Anatole stories, Willard received highest recognition (the 1982 Newbery Medal) for A Visit to William Blake’s Inn: Poems For Innocent and Experienced Travelers (1981), a book that is unlike anything she had previously done for children. Ostensibly based on Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience, the collection portrays the poet and artist as a keeper of an inn in which plants and animals speak, guests ride in Blake’s fantastic flying car, and celestial bodies cavort for the entertainment of all. Many of the fifteen poems are nonsense verses, such as “The Man in the Marmalade Hat Arrives,” “The King of Cats Orders an Early Breakfast,” and “The Wise Cow Enjoys a Cloud,” while others express morals or messages clearly, such as “When We Come Home,Blake Calls for Fire,” which praises the virtues of fire, and “The Marmalade Man Makes a Dance to Mend Us,” which bids all creatures to live in peace. Willard indulges in a clever play on words and a mild satire on the idiosyncrasies of the English language in “The Wise Cow Makes Way, Room, and Believe,” “Blake Tells the Tiger the Tale of the Tailor,” a verse story of a tailor who builds his house of body parts stolen from animals only to discover that his home is haunted by his victims, is the most disturbing of the collection.

The poems presented here are short and simple, making use of traditional forms. The subject matter ranges from the didactic to the purely fanciful, but the poems are always markedly nonsensical and literal-minded: breakfast served “on the house,” for instance, is served on the roof of the inn.

As impressive as the poetry itself are the illustrations by Alice and Martin Provensen. The drawings, done in subdued colors and a quaint style, reflect the action of each poem, often depicting the scenes word for word. Filled with smiling animals, fantastic contraptions, and detailed cutaway views of the rooms of the inn, these illustrations provide an amusing and richly detailed complement to Willard’s poetry.

Using in the Library

William Blake’s most famous poem is probably “The Tyger.”  Read the poem to students, emphasizing the poem’s rhythms.  Discuss with students: how is the tiger portrayed in the poem different from the one shown in the book?  If the tigers from the book and the poem seem very different, what might they have in common in the imagination of someone like William Blake?  From the poem and the book, what can we conclude about the personalities of the inn-keeper (in the book) and of the poet (writer of “The Tyger”)?

“The Tyger” is a famous poem about an animal.  Ask students to find and share other poems about animals.  Using “The Tyger” or another poem as a model, write a poem about an animal and share in the library.


About Boyd Waltman

Boyd Waltman is a film editor in Houston, Texas.
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