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How a children’s book inspired my wanderlust

If you couldn’t tell from my fairly philosophical (ie, rambling) posts of late, I was in serious need of some inspiration last week. So rather than my typical fail-safes of visiting museums or walking around, I opted to stay indoors.

On Sunday night I curled up with my Kindle (read my review of the Amazon Kindle Paperwhite), and opened one of my favorite childhood books: The Twenty-One Balloons (21 Balloons).

21 balloons book

It’s a book obviously mean to inspire curiosity and an adventurous spirit among children. Published in 1947 and set in the 19th century, the book still is relevant today. The story focuses on one intrepid explorer, Professor William Waterman Sherman, and his desire to leave San Francisco behind and set off in a balloon to travel around the world.

Once he sets off, though, a series of unfortunate events change his plans quite dramatically and he’s forced to make a crash landing—on what you would expect to be a deserted island in the Pacific.

In fact, he lands on the island of Krakatoa. At its heart, the 21 Balloons book is really a Krakatoa children’s book.

When I first read The 21 Balloons, it was my first introduction to the Javanese island. Krakatoa is most famous for its volcano—which exploded in 1883 and is, to date, the loudest sound ever heard. The sound of the explosion was heard all the way in Australia and the tsunamis from the explosion killed nearly 40,000 people. If that doesn’t get your fingers trembling, I don’t know what will.

If you’re looking for a good book about the Krakatoa explosion (from the non-fiction perspective), I recommend Simon Winchester’s book. If you’re looking for information on what Krakatoa is like today and how you can visit, check out this blog post from Jack & Jill Travel.

So this book, The Twenty-One Balloons, it’s a fun story about this Professor who’s stranded on an island. Turns out the island (if you haven’t guessed, it’s Krakatoa pre-explosion) isn’t uninhabited and there are all these American families living there.

The Krakatoa island is full of diamonds, and the families (named by each letter of the alphabet) have all decided to create a utopian society living off the wealth of the island. There are quite a few contradictions within the children’s novel.

For one: there’s the contradiction between the importance of wealth (necessary for this utopia to exist), but then the fact that there’s no currency and no need for it among the society they’ve created for themselves:

Our only work now, besides cooking, is in trying to make life more pleasant for ourselves and for each other.

You see, what I loved about this book as a kid is the focus on architecture and food in this utopian society. Each family is responsible for bringing a country’s culture to the island nation. There’s a Moroccan-themed house, an American townhouse, a French palace, and so on.

The author, William Pene du Bois, illustrates several of these houses and their silly inventions (the children of Krakatoa created a merry-go-round which works with hot-air balloons) throughout the novel.

As a kid, I was always fascinated with inventions and architecture. I remember drawing and designing made-up houses. There was even a high school project in my world history class which involved creating a constitution and government plan for my very own island nation.

There’s something adventurous and exciting about this kind of thinking, and I believe that’s why this book is one of many responsible for my wanderlust.

Ultimately, the people of Krakatoa are inspired by the Professor’s tales of home. Reminiscing on the past, they’ve got this to say about what home is:

I suppose one doesn’t think of one’s home town in terms of streets and buildings as much as one does of personal associations, friends, and relatives.

And like all good things, this story ends with an explosion (can you guess which?!). The book’s a good one, du Bois’ illustrations are fanciful (and surprisingly came across well in my Kindle edition), and there’s much to be wondered about when finishing the story. It’s a short read; it’s a children’s book after all.

Buy it on Amazon (available as a paperback and Kindle edition).

  1. Sounds like a most fascinating book – even for an adult wanderlust like me (who’s arguably – even after 6 decades) still not officially “grown up”, thank goodness!)

    My own childhood wanderlust inspiration came from a song – the sappy, old-timey favorite of my parent’s “You Belong To Me” by Patsy Kline. The lyrics, “Fly the ocean in a silver plane, watch the jungle when it’s wet with rain”, “See the pyramids along the Nile, watch the sunrise on a tropic isle” – inspired a LIFETIME of wander. Shoot, I even started my own int’l tour company for 20+ years!

    • Adam says:

      Those are some great lyrics – not surprised to hear they would inspire wanderlust! Let me know if you decide to check out the book :)

  2. Larissa says:

    I LOVED “The 21 Balloons”! It was one of my favorites growing up. Krakatoa was indeed a weird and wonderful place. And it definitely contributed to my growing wanderlust. I just might have to read it again. . . Thanks for sparking the memories, Adam :)

    • Adam says:

      Glad to hear you’d read it too Larissa. I don’t think it’s as familiar a book as some other children’s stories, which is why I felt the need to share it this time around. And I’d love to try and visit Krakatoa at some point simply because of the stories I’ve read about its explosion. “Weird and wonderful” seem like an apt description!

  3. Sam says:

    Sounds fun! I think I would’ve loved this book as a kid.

  4. Erica says:

    Sounds like a great book that I need to check out, both as an English teacher and a traveler.

    Great blog! I have enjoyed reading about your travels.

    • Adam says:

      Thank you so much Erica! The book won a Newbery Medal so I think it’s pretty popular among children’s stories…

  5. Sounds like an absolutely lovely book… Utopia as a genre has always fascinated me. I’m gonna have to get my hands on this one. The last quote you mentioned reminds me of something my father said when I visited the house he was born in with him, in the Mazurian Lake District in Poland. While many Germans who are from that area have a strong sense of nostalgia, my father doesn’t really because he says he was too young when he left – he never had time to make personal memories with other people in that place. That is just what the quote says.

    • Adam says:

      It’s a really sweet story, Mariella. Interesting to hear about your father’s house in Poland. The idea of utopia has always interested me as well… It seems most stories I’ve read about fictional utopian societies always end in disaster!

  6. Inspiring Travel Blogs 11-20 April | The Travel TesterThe Travel Tester says:

    […] How a children’s book inspired my wanderlust I always love reading where a person’s love for travel originated and Adam from Travels of Adam knows it well. A book written to inspire curiosity and an adventurous spirit among children, what better can there be? […]

  7. Nienke says:

    Great post! I totally did the drawing of made-up houses too! And when I was still a teacher, I always picked out book about travel and adventure to read to the kids. They loved it! I might get this book as well, but to read for myself :D

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