Intentional Emotion + Accidental Theme =
A Balloon for Isabel
By Deborah Underwood
A Balloon for Isabel began with my idea of a porcupine yearning for a balloon. As Ms. Quill, Isabel’s teacher, puts it: “Porcupines + Balloons = Trouble.” You need conflict for a strong story, and the seemingly impossible combination of pop-prone products with pointy porcupines provided plenty of conflict potential.
I stumbled upon a photograph that perfectly captures the single-minded desire I tried to express in A Balloon for Isabel. The picture is taken from inside a candy display case. It shows a little boy with his nose pressed up against the glass, his eyes filled with hopeless longing as he gazes at the trays of chocolates.
When you’re young and you want something, it encompasses you. Nothing in the world seems as important as getting that chocolate or that bicycle. Or that balloon.
The problem with pining for something when you’re a kid is that you usually don’t have the power to get it. As adults, we sometimes forget that deep hunger, because we have more control in our lives. Not long after I graduated from college, I saw an advertisement for a kids’ toothpaste that had flecks of glitter in it. My first thought was an almost desperate, “Oh, I want that.” This was quickly followed by the stunned, wondrous realization that as an adult, I could actually go out and buy it! (I did; it was satisfyingly sparkly, although the bubble-gum flavor was a bit much.)
I had a similar revelatory moment while staring at a rack of toys in the grocery store. A young boy was looking at the toys too. It dawned on me that I could buy any of them (or every single one of them!) if I wanted, but he’d have to wheedle a purchase out of his parents—and from his expression, that was unlikely. We exchanged a look: mine sympathetic, his resigned.
The fact that children often feel powerless makes Isabel even more of a hero to me. She really wants a balloon, and more importantly, recognizes that it’s not fair that porcupines are excluded from the school’s balloon festivities. Isabel refuses to accept the status quo. She is Determined, with a capital D, to effect change. And she does.
My plan was simply to tell a story about Isabel wanting a balloon. But when my boyfriend read the book for the first time, he declared “This is about injustice!” before he even got to the fifth page. Silly me for not noticing the theme of my own book, but he’s absolutely right.
If you set out to write a book with a message, it often becomes preachy and deadly dull. But if a message you strongly believe in—such as “don’t tolerate injustice”—creeps into your book without your conscious intention…well, how cool is that? Maybe I’ll go buy some sparkly toothpaste to celebrate.
Deborah Underwood has written many fiction and nonfiction books for children, including A Balloon for Isabel, which went on sale in April! Her other books include The Quiet Book (Houghton Mifflin), a New York Times bestseller; Pirate Mom (Random House); and The Sugar Plum Ballerinas series (Hyperion). She lives in San Francisco, California.