Review: The Girl with the Red Balloon, Katherine Locke

Does anyone else here have a habit of mentally constructing syllabuses to replace the syllabuses you had as a kid? Where you’ll be like, “Instead of A Separate Peace, I decree that all the youths will now read Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe,” or whatever. I haven’t exactly decided what specific book on youthful summer reading lists The Girl with the Red Balloon should replace, but I’d love for it to be on those lists.

The Girl with the Red Balloon

Ellie Baum thinks her grandfather’s stories about being saved from the Holocaust by a magic red balloon are just that — stories. But when she sees a red balloon on her school trip to Berlin, she grabs at the string and is instantly transported back in time to East Berlin in 1988, with no way to get home. Though she meets a boy called Kai who helps people escape East Berlin with the help of magic red balloons, nobody in his circle seems to have any idea how Ellie got there, or how to get her back.

(To help you budget emotionally for this book, I will also mention that a minority number of chapters tell the story of Ellie’s grandfather living in a ghetto in Poland in 1941, and how he escaped to freedom. If you want more specific spoilers, get at me in the comments.)

Why I’d have loved to read this book as a kid: I didn’t know any damn thing about the Berlin Wall! This is partly my failing, because I was awful about Current Events as a tot, but I didn’t know until high school that there had been a Berlin Wall and that it had come down during my lifetime. Which is a pretty big thing not to know! And then in history classes, because the Berlin Wall was so recent, we didn’t really learn about it. Do youths learn about it now? They must, right? (But do they?)

But also: Locke is telling a story of hope and magic. The Runners who help connect escaping Berliners with magic balloons, and the Schopfers who make the balloon magic in the first place have an operation that spans the entire world. Wherever there are people who need to get out, there are balloons to help them. The Girl with the Red Balloon is in many ways a sad book, but its fundamental message is one of hope: That people want to help, and that even in the darkest of times, it is possible to help and to be helped.

This is a book about living in dark times and surviving them, drawing strength from moments of joy and from friends and from faith. If that sounds like something you need this year, I’d urge you to pick up The Girl with the Red Balloon.