Diamonds, Balloons, Hidden Worlds, and Dragons

Elizabeth Bluemle - May 1, 2013

Every year, I like to resurrect at least a few favorite older books to recommend for summer reading.
The 21 Balloons by William Pène du Bois (Viking) is a perennial favorite because it includes a hot-air balloon wreck at sea, diamond mines, an exploding volcanic island, and best of all, scads of whimsical inventions in the houses of the secret civilization on Krakatoa, where the shipwrecked main character washes up.

Beds that rise through skylights so kids can sleep outdoor at night.

The author was also an incredible artist, and his depictions of inventions mesmerized my sister and me when we were kids. We were fascinated by the living room with chairs connected to overhead electrical grids so they could zoom around the room, and beds whose sheets could be wound to new freshness on a big roll (like old-fashioned cloth handtowels that used to be in public restrooms), and the clever balsa-wood items that replaced regular items too heavy for hot-air balloon travel. The book has a slow beginning, especially for 21st-century attention spans, so I let kids know that ahead of time, showing them some of the great illustrations, and reassure them that once the Professor gets up in his balloon, there’s clear sailing ahead — for the reader, at least.
I also have been on a roll recommending Elizabeth Enright’s Gone-Away Lake (HMH). It is a perfect summer story for grades 4-6. I read this book several times as a child, and although I still don’t remember much of the actual plot, what drew me to it time and again was the appeal of having a place of one’s own. Two cousins, a boy and a girl, are on summer vacation with family when they discover a little ring of old houses around a lake. No one lives there except two adorable little old people, who befriend Portia and Julian, and invite them to choose any house they like to explore and make into their own clubhouse. There’s something pleasingly, not frighteningly, haunting about this vanished summer lake, something out of time. Pretty much all you have to do to get a kid (at least a girl; I’m not sure I’ve handsold this one to boys, but will see what happens) interested in this book is to mention the hidden lake and the kids getting to choose a whole house of their own, and they’re in.
Finally, Rebecca Rupp’s absolutely charming Dragon of Lonely Island (Candlewick) is always, always a hit with kids ages 7-10. It combines everything you want in a summer story: adventure, humor, the sea, and of course dragons. Well, one glittering golden dragon with three heads, who is quite old and sleepy, but kind. It befriends the three children who discover its cave, drawing them in with riveting stories about past adventures from its 20,000 years of life. While the children get a taste of ancient China, at sea in 19th-century England, and a plane crash in early 20th-century America, they also realize that someone else has discovered Fafnyr’s den and wants to kidnap their dragon friend.
There are so many others I could write about: Edward Eager’s Magic or Not?, Anne Lindbergh’s Worry Week (Josie’s favorite summer book to recommend to ages 7-10), the more serious Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O’Dell, and on and on.
What backlist books about vacations, adventures, sand, sea, and sunshine put you and the kids you recommend to in a summer mood?

5 thoughts on “Diamonds, Balloons, Hidden Worlds, and Dragons

  1. David LaRochelle

    You mentioned some of my all-time favorites, Elizabeth! In fifth grade my best friend and I made a model of the “balloon raft” from 21 BALLOONS in lieu of a traditional book report. We lost more than one balloon trying to get it from my mom’s car into the school on a very blustery day, but that didn’t diminish my love of this imaginative book, which is still vivid in my memory.
    All of Edward Eager’s books were favorites when I was in fifth-sixth grade, and even though I didn’t read it until I was an adult, GONE-AWAY LAKE charmed me immediately.
    THIMBLE SUMMER, THE SPACESHIP UNDER THE APPLE TREE, and THE WONDERFUL FLIGHT TO THE MUSHROOM PLANET are all books that I associate with leisurely days of happy summer reading. Now I need to track down a copy of THE DRAGON OF LONELY ISLAND!


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