October 11, 2016

Big laughs with a balloon’s adversarial passengers

By Matthew Olshan & Sophie Blackall
Review by

It’s all fun and games till you and your mortal enemy have to strip down in a hot air balloon way up in the clouds.

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It’s all fun and games till you and your mortal enemy have to strip down in a hot air balloon way up in the clouds.

As noted by the subtitle for A Voyage in the Clouds, this is the story of the first international flight via hot air balloon, fraught as it was with two bickering, older men from different parts of the world. It’s 1785, and Dr. John Jeffries, who puts up the money for the flight, and Jean-Pierre Blanchard, who provides the balloon, insist on flying together from France from England, though they don’t get along. Author Matthew Olshan plays up their lighthearted, though very real, bickering to great effect. An opening sequence in which Jeffries busts Blanchard for lining his vest with lead so that Jeffries will think the flight is too heavy for him is impishly fun. They even argue about who will climb out of the balloon first after it finally lands.

Things go from amusing to laugh-out-loud funny when the balloon loses gas and they have to empty it of any excess ballast—all the way down to their trousers and even their bladders. Their panic is palpable and entertaining, despite the loss of valuable items from the balloon, including a violin. Needless to say, neither man is particularly eager to be the first to step from the balloon upon landing. Best of all, they step out as two men who have shaken hands and see each other as equals.

This book marks the second time Olshan and Caldecott Medalist Sophie Blackall have paired up (the previous being 2013’s The Mighty Lalouche). Olshan’s closing author’s note fleshes out a bit more detail about this true story, indicating his primary source matter, but also clarifies the “liberties” he took with the story. Blackall uses speech balloons for some of the dialogue and occasionally goes from full-bleed color spreads, which elegantly capture the time period, to sepia-tone action, divided into small, briskly paced panels. The body language and facial expressions of the two men (and their companion dogs) are spot-on, adding much to the book’s high-flying humor.

This is a comedy of manners of the drollest, most charming sort. 


Julie Danielson features authors and illustrators at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, a children’s literature blog.

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A Voyage in the Clouds

A Voyage in the Clouds

By Matthew Olshan & Sophie Blackall
ISBN 9780374329549

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