GIRL WITH THE RED BALLOON, by Katherine Locke, Albert Whitman & Company, Sept. 1, 2017, Hardcover, $16.99 (young adult)
We all know balloons float. We use them to celebrate special occasions, track weather and even transport people to other locations. But what if balloons could do much more? What if they could save people from impending doom? What if they could even transport people through time? Those are the questions behind Katherine Locke’s Girl with the Red Balloon.
Girl with the Red Balloon follows 16-year-old Ellie Baum, who is on a school trip in Germany. When Ellie sees a red balloon bobbing along unattended, she realizes it makes for the perfect photo-op. When Ellie grabs the string, she gets way more than she bargained for. Instead of the perfect shot, she’s transported to 1988 East Berlin.
Alone and afraid, Ellie accepts the help of Kai, the first person she meets there. Luckily for Ellie, Kai knows how she got there — well sort of. Kai is part of an underground group that uses balloons and magic to help people escape over the Berlin Wall. So Kai understands the balloon, but not the time travel. Even the balloon makers aren’t sure how Ellie made the jump.
As Ellie works with Kai and his underground group, two things become clear: everyone wants to help get Ellie home and someone is using dark magic in attempt to change history. Ellie’s not willing to let the past be changed, even if that means sacrificing her future in the process.
Girl with the Red Balloon is an intense and, at times, very dark, book. What makes it work is compelling material — both real and imagined. Not only does Locke take readers to 1988 East Berlin, she also immerses them in 1940s Berlin and Poland. The source material for both these settings is rich and well researched. Then Locke adds in magical elements that create a new reality without obscuring the old.
I found Locke’s choice of a red balloon, rather than black or white for example, to be another strong editorial element. The boldness of color echoes the boldness of the balloons’ travelers and handlers as they fight against regimes. The red stands out in stark contrast to the suffering of Jews in ghettos and concentration camps as well as the oppression suffered by those trapped on the east side of the Berlin Wall.
Girl with the Red Balloon does have a few pacing problems. Early on, I devoured it, but as I came to the second half, I found myself dragging. I still cared about the characters and wanted to know the outcome, but it wasn’t the page-turner I started out with. Luckily, things turned around for me a few chapters later, and I once again found myself racing toward the end.
Girl with the Red Balloon is the first book in a planned series. Locke is currently working on the second novel, which takes place 45 years before the first. The author has said it’s set in the same world with different characters. I’m interested to see where she goes with it. This sort of treatment certainly opens up a lot more possibilities in the future.
© 2017, Cracking the Cover. All rights reserved.