Published by Albert Whitman Company on September 1st 2017
When sixteen-year-old Ellie Baum accidentally time-travels via red balloon to 1988 East Berlin, she’s caught up in a conspiracy of history and magic. She meets members of an underground guild in East Berlin who use balloons and magic to help people escape over the Wall—but even to the balloon makers, Ellie’s time travel is a mystery. When it becomes clear that someone is using dark magic to change history, Ellie must risk everything—including her only way home—to stop the process.
I received this book for free in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.
This book, you guys. THIS BOOK. I didn’t know what to expect going into The Girl with the Red Balloon. Historical fiction is my favorite genre, and I’ve always been fascinated by the Berlin Wall and the division of Germany post-World War II. I went into this book expecting historical fiction set in East Berlin in the 80’s with a touch of magic, but what I got was one of the most emotionally powerful stories I have ever read. This book affected me on such a deep, unexpected level.
The story follows our protagonist, Ellie, who starts out on a trip to Berlin with her high school German class. She is visiting the ruins of the Berlin Wall when she sees a stray red balloon, grabs onto it, and is accidentally transported to the exact same spot in East Berlin in 1988– a year and a half before the fall of the Berlin Wall. Ellie gets swept up into the world of the Balloonmakers, who use a peculiar, equation-based (and super fascinating) type of magic written on balloons to transport people from East Berlin to the other side of the Wall, and consequently, to freedom. You would think a story with balloon magic would be whimsical and fun, but you would be wrong with this book. The Girl with the Red Balloon certainly leans toward the darker side of YA fiction. It raises so many important, difficult questions about morality, history, oppressive governments, fear, and everything in between.
In addition to the main plot, this book is part family saga: not only do we read from Ellie’s perspective, but also from that of her grandfather, Benno, who escaped a concentration camp and survived the Holocaust with the help of the first ever Balloonmaker in the 1940’s. The family element in this story is huge, and it really helped tie everything together. Oh man, it was heart-wrenching. This book does not shy away from the horrors of the Holocaust or from the anti-semitism rampant in Germany during that time, so take care while reading if those things are triggering for you.
I want to talk about characters, because the characters in this novel will stick with me for a long time. Of course, we have Ellie, our protagonist, and Benno, her grandfather. Ellie was such an easy protagonist to root for. I couldn’t help but feel for her and her situation. Her reactions to all of the craziness that had befallen her life felt so realistic. She was headstrong and brave, and her character development over the course of her time in East Berlin was absolutely beautiful. One thing I also loved about Ellie is that she is a practicing Jewish main character. It’s rare to see religious protagonists in YA at all, and even rarer to see any who partake in religious traditions other than Christianity. (The Jewish rep in this book is #ownvoices, by the way. Yay!) Then we have Kai, our love interest, who is also a POV character. I loved him so, so much. Again, I couldn’t help but feel for him. He is Romani, so he already feels like an outcast in most of the world, but he also is an outcast from his own Romanichal community back in England, which he had to flee when people started to persecute his younger sister, Sabina, for her magic. He would do anything to protect his family. He’s fiercely loyal. We also have Mitzi, the last of our main trio. Though not a POV character, Mitzi was impossible not to love. She is a lesbian in East Berlin, and started helping the Balloonmakers once her parents kicked her out of the house because of her sexuality. Mitzi seems abrasive at first, but she’s such a wonderful friend to both Kai and Ellie. These three and their friendship, man. It tugged so hard at my heartstrings. There was just such an abundance of love and loyalty among the three of them, and they were always, always there for one another. This wonderfully diverse cast of characters is one of my new favorites in any book, ever.
The romance between Kai and Ellie was completely swoonworthy. The beautiful friendships and romances that developed over the backdrop of such a bleak world added so much hope to this story. One thing I especially appreciated about the romance here is that there was no “woe is me, I love this boy, but we are from different times… whatever shall I do?!” narrative from Ellie. She loved Kai, and she just let herself love him without all of the angst, and vice versa. This story and these characters already had enough angst without an unnecessarily angsty romance, so that was much-appreciated. They had undeniable chemistry, and seriously, I’m not usually a shippy person, but I will go down with this damn ship. They deserved the happiness the other person brought them in such a bleak world, okay???
Obviously, the setting was dark as hell. I mean, one timeline chronicles a Jewish boy during the Nazi regime through his time in the ghettos and in a concentration camp, and the other chronicles three people of historically persecuted groups in freakin’ communist East Berlin in the 1980’s. I have read books set during the Holocaust, but none set in East Germany. I really enjoyed (that’s a strange verb to use, but whatever) reading about this particular city during this particular time. You really got a sense of the fear and hopelessness that had settled over the city by this point, but also of the spark of rebellion that stayed alive til the very end and ultimately helped bring about the demise of this oppressive regime. So, yes, the setting is decidedly grim– and Locke doesn’t shy away from the horrors of either of these time periods– but the relationships and the characters are what make the story bearable to read instead of just a giant black hole of sadness.
I don’t want to go too into detail here about the magical elements, because I think they’re fun to discover on your own. I will say that I thought the balloon magic was incredibly unique; I’ve never read anything like it. I love that it was equation-based– it was rooted in logic, but also it wasn’t entirely logical, because, like, it was still magic. I hope we get to learn more about the magic of this world in the next installment! I still have so many questions. The story also features a mystery element. I mean, clearly Ellie was not supposed to end up at the point in time where she did, and throughout the book the characters try to puzzle out how a malfunction in the balloon that caused her time travel could even be possible. The “whodunnit” was admittedly pretty predictable, but nonetheless gutwrenching to read about. Oh, also, you might be wondering why I only gave this book 4.5 stars instead of a full 5, since I loved it so much. The pacing felt a little bit slow to me at some points– there was a lot of Ellie just sitting around in the safehouse apartment toward the middle of the book. However, the rest of the book completely made up for the slightly off pacing at certain points.
Again, The Girl with the Red Balloon brought up so many questions I haven’t stopped thinking about since I finished it, especially about morality. This book is so deceptively deep. There are pages where you read a seemingly simple interaction or statement, but then the next thing you know, you think about it a little more and end up questioning your entire life and your beliefs. I should probably also mention the fact that this book had an astronomical emotional impact on me– this is the most I’ve cried while reading a book in years. YEARS. Probably since Clockwork Princess came out in 2012. Not only did I cry at random points throughout the book when something touched me, but I straight-up sobbed through the entire last 10% of the book, and, upon finishing it, cried for another half hour. The ending wasn’t even sad, just incredibly bittersweet and beautiful.
If you haven’t gathered it from my review, The Girl with the Red Balloon is one of the most powerful, emotionally impactful books I’ve read in my life. I cannot recommend this story highly enough to everyone.
Have you read The Girl with the Red Balloon? If so, let’s pleeeeaaase discuss because I have SO MANY FEELINGS ABOUT IT. If not, please tell me you plan to pick it up this fall?