David L. Bristow

Sky Sailors: True Stories of the Balloon Era


Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux


2010 Blue Ribbon Book, Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books

2010 Notable Social Studies Trade Books for Young People, National Council for the Social Studies and the Children’s Book Council

Nebraska Book Award for Youth Nonfiction. Nebraska Center for the Book


Take aeronautics back, back, back before space shuttles, moon missions, airplanes, and dirigibles, and you arrive with Bristow at the late eighteenth to early twentieth century heyday of tethered and

free-floating balloon flight, with its fearsome novelty and peculiar

perils… this is an inviting title for kids making their first ascents into longer works of nonfiction.” Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books (starred review)


“The writing is crisp and lively, and readers will be easily drawn into the stories of these early risk-takers. Vivid detail, imaginative storytelling, and artwork from the period all make for a compelling account of a bygone time.” School Library Journal


In October 2009, I was putting the finishing touches on this book when I heard the news that a six-year-old boy was flying alone above Colorado in his father’s homemade balloon. The story quickly proved to be a hoax, but for a few glorious hours it seemed like a storybook come to life. At least that’s how I saw it. Who wouldn’t want to go sailing off like that, to ride the clouds and come down a conquering six-year-old hero, the envy of all your friends?


But that isn’t just storybook stuff. Such a thing really happened. Back in 1858, two children in Illinois, ages eight and three, went up in a balloon by accident. They flew most of the night, rising perhaps four miles or more above the earth. Theirs is one of the true stories told here.


This is a book about the early years of human flight, from 1783 to the early 1900s. For more than a century before airplanes were invented, people explored the sky in balloons.


During that era, even airships were mostly still in the future. Airships are similar to balloons, except they have steering mechanisms and some form of propulsion that gives them the power to fly against the wind. For many years, balloonists tried improving their craft with all kinds of rudders, sails, engines and propellers. But no one built truly practical airships until the early twentieth century. They appeared about the same time as the first powered airplanes.


In the meantime, balloonists went wherever the wind took them. They told a doubting public it was a safe way to travel.


And it could be safe, as long as you didn’t do certain dangerous things—such as flying in high winds... or into storm clouds... or over large bodies of water... or while lighting fireworks... or with only a trapeze to hang on to... or over an army that wants to shoot you down... or into the upper atmosphere where there’s not enough oxygen to breathe... or over the arctic ice toward the North Pole.


The men and women in this book did all these things. Most of them lived to tell about it.


“This lively look at escapades of daring menand a surprising number of womenwho risked their lives flying in balloons will appeal to adventure, history and science buffsand perhaps steampunk fans as well.” Kirkus Reviews


“A quick but never uninteresting journey through a little-covered subject that is sure to inspire readers to search for more stories like these.” Booklist


Sky Sailors has also been named the New Nonfiction Book of the Week by the Center for Children’s & Young Adult Literature (Univ. of Tennessee), the Young Adult “Cool Read” in the March 2011 issue of Bookslut, and was featured in the November 2010 issues of Boys Life magazine and Notes from the Horn Book.


“The stories of aeronauts, the precursor to pilots and astronauts, are fascinating and thrilling.” Robin’s Roundup (Robin Adelson, Executive Director, Children’s Book Council)


A children’s librarian at Manhattan (KS) Public Library writes, “When Sky Sailors came in to the library, I picked it up to flip through it like all the other new children's books. I didn't expect for it to grab my attention so much that I would read the whole thing… I had no idea that the history of the balloon was so interesting and filled with so many adventures….” (see the library’s blog).



© 2010 David L. Bristow



Banner image: The balloon Neptune landing on the coast near Calais, France, in 1868. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division, LC-DIG-ppmsca-02481

Farrar, Straus and Giroux Books for Young Readers (Macmillan).


144 pages, hardcover, full-color pictures. $18.99 US/$22.95 Canada.


Middle grade nonfiction. Ages 9-13, grades 3-8.



“Ah, to be in a balloon. So peaceful, so quiet, seeing all below. This marvelous book tells you all about it.”


—Michael Collins, Gemini 10 and Apollo 11 astronaut and the author of Flying to the Moon: An Astronaut’s Story

In the early 1800s, Sophie Blanchard entertained French audiences by shooting fireworks from her hydrogen balloon.

Visit The Curious People (thecuriouspeople.wordpress.com), my blog about curiosity, discovery, and creativity.