Through the Looking Glass Children's Book Reviews

The Girl with the Red Balloon

The Girl with the Red Balloon

Katherine Locke
For ages 12 and up
Albert Whitman and Company, 2017   ISBN: 978-0807529331

Ellie is in Berlin, and she is feeling a little conflicted about her visit to the city. On the one hand she is delighted to be in a new place where the spring sun is out and new possibilities seem to fill the air. On the other she is feeling bad because she her grandfather, Saba, did not want her to come on the trip. For him, a Jew who survived the Nazi attempts to wipe out the Jewish people, Germany and its citizens are the enemy.

Ellie and her classmates are taking photos in Potsdamer Platz when a red balloon drifts by. Saba used to tell Ellie stories about a red balloon, and without thinking Ellie grabs the string. Suddenly, and without warning, something very bizarre happens. Everything goes black and when she comes to Ellie is in a place that she does not recognize.

Soon after, a complete stranger, a boy, grabs her. Ellie knees him in the groin and bites him, but the boy will not let her go. He asks her confusing questions about where she found the balloon, and which “checkpoint” she used. What on earth is the boy talking about? The boy then tells her that if she stays where she is the police, who are showing an interest in her, will take her in custody and God only knows what they will do to her. Alternately she can trust the boy and let him take her to safety. Reluctantly Ellie chooses to go with the boy.

The boy, Kai, is soon joined by Mitzi, who is also puzzled by the arrival of Ellie. A person called Garrick should have the balloon, not an American girl who speaks bad German; not an American girl who seems to have no idea where she is. When Ellie talks about being in a park where she saw “old pieces of the wall,” Kai realizes that something has gone terribly wrong.

He is even more stunned when he realizes that Ellie seems to understand that the balloon she caught was being used to transport a person over the wall. The idea that red balloons can transport people to safety does not shock Ellie because Saba told her stories about how he was rescued from the ghetto by a red balloon, a balloon that a girl had filled with magic. Of course, she used to think Saba’s tales were made up, but now she knows better.

In Ellie’s case a balloon has transported her over a wall, and it has also taken her into the past. Instead of being in present day Berlin, Ellie is in East Berlin and the year is 1988. She is on the wrong side of the wall in the wrong time.

Ellie soon learns that Kai and Mitzi are Runners who help connect the magical balloons with Passengers who need to be sent to safety. They are part of a worldwide organization that uses the balloons to protect people from cruel and unjust regimes. The goal of the Councils that make up the organization is to “save lives in places of unimaginable oppression.”

Ellie is taken to a safe house where she waits and worries, unsure of what is going to happen next. It would seem that what happened with her red balloon was an anomaly that no one can explain. Why did the Passenger who was assigned to the balloon di? Why did Ellie end up with the balloon, which should not work for anyone other than the Passenger it was made for? Why did it bring her back through time to East Berlin? No one really knows.

As the magic balloon makers and the Council try to understand why Ellie is in East Berlin, she gets to know Kai and his world. She finds out that Kai is a Romanichal who fled his home in England so that he could protect his sister Sabina. Sabina is a powerful magic worker, and there are some who would like to use her for their own ends. In Berlin Kai works for the Council, and in return the Council keeps Sabina safe. As far as Kai is concerned he is “Sabina’s Berlin wall.” He keeps her safe from the “outside.”

Without meaning to, Ellie and Kai start to care for each other. Kai, who already has Sabina to look after, wants to protect Ellie as well. There are too many enemies out there who could very easily make Ellie disappear.

This extraordinary story, told from the point of view of Ellie, Kai, and Ellie’s grandfather, brings together history, magic, and mystery. Beautifully written, rich with atmosphere, and full of fascinating characters, this is a book that young adults and adults alike will relish.