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Wednesday, February 8, 2017

A Voyage in the Clouds: The (Mostly) True Story of the First International Flight by Balloon in 1785, written by Matthew Olshan and illustrated by Sophie Blackall. Farrar Straus Giroux, Macmillan. Raincoast, 2016. $20.50 ages 8 and up

"Jeffries found Blanchard
at the parade ground. He was
entertaining a large crowd
with a violin, while his dog,
Henri, snoozed at his feet.
A military band was playing
along. Pretty girls were
tossing him flowers. The
balloon was full and
straining at its ropes."

I am endlessly fascinated by the stories authors choose to tell. What motivates them to do the research needed to find out more than they already know, and why is this the story they choose to tell? It is explained in the biographical information provided on the book's back cover:

"A Voyage in the Clouds has its
roots in Matthew's fascination with
manned flight, particularly its humble
beginnings, when every flight could
spell either glory or disaster. (Things
were a lot different when he learned
how to fly an airplane himself.)

This is the same team who gave us The Mighty Lalouche (2013), and I found it just as entertaining and rewarding as I found their first work. Together they tell the story of the very first international balloon voyage. The year is 1785. The balloonists are Dr. John Jeffries from England and Jean-Pierre Blanchard from France. The journey will take them across the English Channel. It is not without its challenges. There is a problem before take-off.

"Bad news? What bad news?
With all our provisions,
the balloon cannot carry
the weight of two men
and two dogs. Only one man.
And only one dog. Henri."

Of course, this is a lie. Blanchard has donned a lead vest to add the needed weight. Once discovered, the flight can go ahead. Soon, they are on their way. The tension remains high, and arguments are rampant. They floats higher, the balloon gets bigger. Jeffries opens a valve to release gas; the needed wrench is accidentally dropped. The balloon continues its downward plunge. Jeffries must enlist help from Blanchard, who manages to stop the gas. Losing altitude, they must rid themselves of weight ... sacks of sand, oars, rudder, violin and bow, thermometer, umbrella, decorations, even the flags. What they do next will have kids hooting.

During the two hour and forty-seven minute flight they experience danger, anger, cooperation and ultimately, success. It's a grand story to tell. Sophie Blackall's detailed artwork holds many surprises, and gives readers a real sense of the time in which the story takes place. She adds to the inherent humor with expressive faces and telling body language. Funny, informative, and worthy of reading during a study of flight, or just for love of reading and entertainment.

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