Words cannot describe how much I loved The Girl with the Red Balloon. But here begin my feeble attempts to try. (Warning, this may just result in a bunch of sections where I have no words for my adoration or obsession. You’ve been warned).
Ellie Baum has grown up with the trauma of the Holocaust, her grandfather being a survivor, and so when she goes to Berlin on a school trip she is not sure what to expect. But time traveling to 1988 East Berlin when she touches a mysterious red balloon, is the farthest thing she could have predicted. She uncovers an underground magical resistance that enchants balloons to fly people over the Berlin Wall. However, Ellie still has questions. How did she get here? And why are there more and more unscheduled balloons, like hers, appearing in the sky?
(Let me give you a mini disclaimer – I am a HUGE fan of time travel novels. Like I actually haven’t read one I do not like. For some reason, they are my kryptonite).
Locke has this fabulous premise of magical red balloons, and brings them to life before your very eyes. There is spell binding writing, characters that enchant you, and explorations of themes that wrap you up with their complexity. Alternating chapters of Benno, Ellie’s grandfather, Ellie and Kai, her Romani resistance friend, tell a story of individual acts of rebellion, unsung heroes, and the nature of forgiveness. Now I’ll break it down and feature some of my favorite elements.
The writing style here is exactly my cup of tea. I cannot say that with all books, but for me there was a mix between artful storytelling and these lines that just hit you and stop you in your tracks. Like snippets of slam poetry. Based on this, my book is riddled with highlights. I rarely want to pick up a physical copy of the book after reading an advance copy, but this one just hit me so hard and I feel like I need to see the quotes in print. I especially love this quote that Locke shared on Twitter, and is in the book: The people never mentioned in history books still made history.
The representation and exploration of Jewish identity was superb. There was a much needed nuanced look not only at further generations of Jewish people who grew up with the collective trauma, like Ellie, but also of German identity and collective guilt – through a German side character. Ellie must reconcile the generational trauma of the time with her own feelings about Germany and the people involved. How does she embrace both parts of her identity?
(Days later as I re-read my quotes of Ellie, I am still amazed by how well Locke describes these feelings and the tension within these moments where we face off against these collective ghosts. Locke shows us the trauma of the past that reverberates in the stone. Locke writes an amazing Twitter thread about her own connection to the story, being Jewish and having a similar family experience – 100% something you should also read. In the author’s note Locke also talks about the historical accuracy in the book and her own journey).
Locke’s characters have difficult conversations between Jews and Germans about the guilt of the times, Romani and German characters about the racism, and many more. Because of this, The Girl with the Red Balloon has got to one of the best books I have read recently that actively tries to engage with its racism and prejudice.
Now to the characters. I loved each and every single one. Ellie was an instant favorite, because she is intelligent, driven, and struggles with German (Believe me Ellie, I know the struggle, but if she can do it maybe one day I can!) But in all seriousness, Ellie has a level of maturity that I find really refreshing. She has her moments of angst as well – don’t get me wrong, but she did just time travel back right into a time of oppression – but Ellie was incredibly resilient. She also has an openness and a ferocity that seem like they might not mix well – but are absolute dynamite.
Kai, a balloon runner and Romani, lent this incredibly touching perspective to the book because of his backstory and general personality. I especially loved that we could see through his eyes and experiences the touches of racism he also experienced – reminding us that other groups as well were targeted.
Another aspect which I loved, more than I expected, was the romance in the story. It was incredibly cute and it made me cry many times. It ruined my makeup before a party. (Tip: don’t follow in my footsteps, read it when you don’t have to host people in your apartment in half an hour). It had all the right elements for me: attraction with a genuine sense of sharing, laughter, and difficult conversations.
Locke explores a myriad of other themes: the repeating nature of history, the challenges of faith in the face of adversity, the difficulty of finding our home, the morality of people, the ways we try to influence fate, and even the necessity of letting go of love. The book, in its entirety, is fabulous in that respect: the way it is able to have this balance of themes. And there are just so many other touches that Locke puts into her writing, which make this book everything, like Benno’s entire perspective, the interaction between magic and science, Kai’s sister, and so much more.
(I’d like also to mention that this is ‘darker’ than some other YA fiction I have read, that also interrogates privilege, but also this topic in general. I really enjoyed that, because it is done in a fantastic way. It doesn’t obscure the atrocities, but it also doesn’t throw them into your face. All these mentions are absolutely there for a purpose and this type of discussion about it is exactly what I think we need more in fiction).
(Addendum number four, I barely talk about the plot here, but I wanted to devote a little space to it, because it is also worth mentioning! It slowly enfolds you into its magical cocoon. The pieces start to slam together at the end as the drama and tension increases. There is a mystery to why Ellie goes back in time that is not only meaningful, but full of consequences that could ripple across time).
Because of its timeliness with the current issues of anti-Semitism, but also the ignorant acts of hate, The Girl with the Red Balloon engages with these similar discussions – and the individual acts of rebellion – in a thoughtful way. It’s not just a love story, it’s not just a book about the Holocaust, but it’s something deeper than that. There are ways we are separated, physically and invisibly, from those we love, our future, or even our past. It is poignant, rich, and meaningful. The Girl with the Red Balloon has the power to resonate within you, to make you feel hopeful in the face of the injustice, and will change how you look at red balloons forever.
Also if you do pre-order it, don’t forget to submit your receipt for some goodies
Disclaimer: I received a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review from Netgalley.
What’s a thing that has been completely changed for you since reading it? Statues and Doctor Who, train stations and Harry Potter?
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