It's a voyage to be always remembered. It compares to nothing else in the sensory perceptions experienced. You are riding through air using contained heated air. It's all scientific but feels like a miracle. Moving vertically and horizontally across fields, slightly above treetops, alongside roadways and over country homes you truly become like you imagine birds to be.
On November 21, 1783 the first untethered manned hot air balloon flight was completed in the country of France. (Previously, a sheep, a duck and a rooster were successfully flown for two miles in eight minutes on September 19, 1783 in Paris, France.) Despite several subsequent successful flights, there was yet another milestone to accomplish, manned flight from one country to another by hot air balloon. A Voyage in the Clouds: The (Mostly) True Story of the First International Flight by Balloon in 1785 (Margaret Ferguson Books, an imprint of Farrar Straus Giroux, October 11, 2016) written by Matthew Olshan with illustrations by Caldecott Medalist Sophie Blackall takes readers soaring and exploring; adding in more than a little laughter.
"Our big day at last!" cried Dr. Jeffries, leaping from bed. He flung open the shutters and lifted his dog, Henry, to the window.
It is January 7, 1785. Dr. Jefferies and Monsieur Blanchard are going to cross the English Channel from England to France in a hot air balloon. The first glitch comes when the good doctor goes to pick up Monsieur Blanchard and finds him not in his room. It seems Blanchard is already at the launch site and now is claiming only one man and one dog can go.
Rightfully so, Dr. Jefferies is puzzled as everything and everyone was carefully weighed yesterday. When all is double checked it is discovered that Blanchard has mysteriously gained almost eighty pounds in one night. What?! Wearing a lead vest can do this for a man.
Taking flight amid constant bickering about who will step off first, which country is better, who paid for everything and who is captaining this vessel, the duo settle into an uneasy companionship as passengers are apt to do. Dr. Jefferies documents the trip. Monsieur Blanchard eats and naps.
While he sleeps something happens to the balloon. Dr. Jefferies, being a learned man, believes he has solved the problem. Perhaps he has solved it too well. Waking Monsieur Blanchard, the twosome finds themselves in an awkward (frightening) situation. When faced with nothing but the bare necessities, a gentleman's agreement is reached.
Using the original monograph as written and presented by Dr. Jeffries, author Matthew Olshan pens a blend of narrative and dialogue. Infused with wit the facts weave flawlessly throughout the tale. It's a rare gift to be able to bring the events of a single day to our attention with this caliber of intelligence and ingenuity. Here is a passage.
The balloon rose into the sky.
By working the oars and the rudder,
Blanchard could turn the aerial car this
way or that. Soon they were out over the
water heading toward France. The views
were spectacular, but Jeffries was still
upset about his speech.
are not gentleman.
The captain is busy.
Will the passenger
please be quiet?
An idyllic scene welcomes us to this book on the opened dust jacket. The sea, sky and clouds continue to the left over the spine creating a single illustration. Upon closer inspection the expressions on the faces of the four passengers reveal a sense of unease rather than peace. It's a beautiful design for the title with the text on the cloud within the balloon. The book case too is a single image. It gives us a view of the bed of the channel beneath the balloon. It hints of the measures taken by the reluctant companions.
The opening and closing endpapers are a gorgeous pattern in black, cream and gray. Small nautical lines (ropes) extend from the top to the bottom. Placed on these in a series of decorative ovals is the balloon over the channel with a cloud behind it and a gull flying above it. The title page is an extension of the dust jacket; clouds, sky and sea with the tail of a whale breaching.
Utterly charming pictures in the interior span across two pages, single pages and partial pages. Sophie Blackall uses speech balloons for much of the dialogue. Sometimes she fashions a series of panels much like a comic in the same color palette as the endpapers to convey significant moments. She varies her perspective to take us directly into the action; as when the passengers are calling to a warship below the balloon it's as if we are behind them or when the balloon is nearly to the coast of France we are able to see the smaller balloon high above the coastal sea town and hills. The expressions worn on the faces of the characters contribute to the laughter we feel welling up inside us at the story proceeds.
One of my favorite illustrations spans two pages. It's the balloon's eye view of the car carrying Jeffries, Blanchard, Henry and Henri. With two sandbags inside the men are leaning back at opposite ends. Jeffries is writing in a journal petting Henry. Blanchard is holding a small cooked fowl, chewing on one of the legs. Henri eagerly jumps on his knee hoping for a nibble. Satchels are visible along with an umbrella and a violin. For the moment everything is perfectly perfect.
As soon as you start to look at the dust jacket, book case and endpapers you understand why A Voyage in the Clouds: The (Mostly) True Story of the First International Flight by Balloon in 1785 written by Matthew Olshan with illustrations by Sophie Blackall appears on The New York Times Best Illustrated Children's Books of 2016. The text and pictures work in excellent harmony to convey this marvelous feat by two men who really did not care for each other. You should read this often and aloud whenever you can. It is a must-have for your professional and personal collections.
To learn more about Matthew Olshan and Sophie Blackall please visit their websites by following the links attached to their names. Sophie Blackall also maintains a blog. If you wish to view interior pages follow this link to the publisher's website. (One of my favorite pictures is shown.) Julie Danielson, author, reviewer and blogger at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, highlights this title with Sophie Blackall sharing research images, sketches and final art. Matthew Olshan is interviewed by Deborah Kalb about this title and his work in general. In two posts this year on his blog, Watch. Connect. Read., John Schumacher, Scholastic's Ambassador of School Libraries, chats with Sophie and showcases her Caldecott Medal speech.
While I realize this title is not nonfiction in its entirety, the author does include in a note about his research and what is fact and what is fiction. For this reason I am including it in my selection of titles for Wednesdays during the Nonfiction Picture Book Challenge 2016 hosted by educator Alyson Beecher at Kid Lit Frenzy. Please visit this site to view the other books selected this week by participants.