The best books about being lighter than air and above it all

The Books I Picked & Why

Falling Upwards: How We Took to the Air

By Richard Holmes

Book cover of Falling Upwards: How We Took to the Air

Why this book?

I was already a fan of Holmes’ The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science, and there was some overlap in this book, in the best sense—since what could be more wondrous or terrifying than humans taking flight for the first time. Falling Upwards became the definitive history for me while I researched my book for younger readers. It captures the human experience of flight in a lively, character-rich narrative with philosophical heft, straddling—as did early ballooning—science and spectacle. It’s an elegant, rollicking story built over a scaffold of sound scholarship. I couldn’t put it down.


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The Romance of Ballooning: The Story of the Early Aeronauts

By Edita Lausanne

Book cover of The Romance of Ballooning: The Story of the Early Aeronauts

Why this book?

This oversized coffee-table book is an archival treasure trove: a collection of primary source materials—contemporary articles, letters, broadsheets, and other rare material—arranged chronologically and packed with line drawings and spectacular full-color plates. The author lets the painstakingly harvested entries speak for themselves, with little comment or imposed context beyond the archival images, and the result is a rich tribute to the art of ballooning and its practitioners. Beautifully curated and visually dazzling, this is a browser’s delight.


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Wonderful Balloon Ascents, or the Conquest of the Skies: A History of Balloons and Balloon Voyages

By Fulgence Marion

Book cover of Wonderful Balloon Ascents, or the Conquest of the Skies: A History of Balloons and Balloon Voyages

Why this book?

I love the gossipy tone of Fulgence Marion’s 1870 tribute to aeronautical history and its heroes. It’s a lofty enterprise (anchored to the authorial “we”) but somehow feels intimate or even snarky at times, as if the author managed to be on hand for each ascent. You can almost imagine him peering over the shoulder of the aeronauts, explaining or challenging the flight “science” all the way. Wikipedia notes that Marion was the pen name of French astronomer and science fiction writer Camille Flammarion, a contemporary of Jules Vernes, which makes sense, but I can’t confirm it, so let’s just say that Marion (and/or his translator) is a wry observer, and the stellar line art is worth the price of admission. 


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Balloonomania Belles: Daredevil Divas Who First Took to the Sky

By Sharon Wright

Book cover of Balloonomania Belles: Daredevil Divas Who First Took to the Sky

Why this book?

Also a bit gossipy or wink-wink in tone, Wright’s feminist take on early flight is good fun. She narrates the hair-raising adventures of female pioneers of balloon flight—from feisty French teenager Elisabeth Thible, the first woman in the air, to charismatic British actress Leticia Ann Sage, whom one newspaper credited with “that manly fortitude which constitutes the heroine.” Wright presents a memorable cast of women who were all willing and well able—whether for a day or for decades—to brave life in the upper stories. She narrates, too, how they did it despite danger and scandal, at a time when women had few options or outlets for challenging themselves personally or professionally.


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The Sheep, the Rooster, and the Duck

By Matt Phelan

Book cover of The Sheep, the Rooster, and the Duck

Why this book?

Now for something completely different. My own book is for middle-grade readers, so I wanted to include another younger title, and it was perfect timing that this rollicking adventure crossed my path when it did. Hilariously droll, Phelan’s illustrated fiction stars characters lauded for their pivotal role in early flight—the three barnyard aeronauts who made the very first ascent in a hot-air balloon. But their career didn’t end there: the sheep, the rooster, and the duck went on to battle injustice, defeat dastardly villains, and expose nefarious plots against society. Phelan’s extraordinary farm animals are more than fearless aeronauts: they’re covert superheroes in a world of sinister secret societies, Benjamin Franklin, and the world’s first heat-ray. High-flying fun!


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