A girlfriend and I were talking about our favorite books from childhood and how, even decades later the images and story remain clear and fresh as the day they were first read to us. Her book was about Eskimos (OK, Inuits now but back then the term was Eskimos.) “The igloos fascinated me”, she recalled. “These round houses of ice.”
The Red Balloon was mine. I still have the original copy my mother read to me time and again. I loved Pascal, the lonely only child whose mother banished any stray cat or dog he brought home lest the animal sully her “clean and well-kept rooms.” Until the day he finds a red balloon tied to a lamppost.
I spent hours studying photographs that alternated by two-page spread between color and black and white. Those of you who know the story (and can recall the photos) understand why I didn’t trust anyone who wore socks with their sandals as did the French boys who stole Pascal’s balloon. I hated those boys with all the righteous fury my four-year-old spirit could summon for stoning Pascal’s beloved friend, throwing rock after rock at it until it burst.
And then came the “revolt of the balloons” when every balloon in Paris broke free from its tether. My favorite picture remains the shot of Pascal reaching for the strings of these huge balloons that lifted him skyward for a grand tour around the world.
This is why I love The Red Balloon, why I loved it then and why I love it still. The story’s themes still resonate as deeply as ever: the unjustness of being misunderstood; the serendipitious ally who slips into our lives; the jealousy of those who, incapable of celebrating our joy, do everything they can to destroy it.
Perhaps it’s overstating it to say Albert LaMorisse’s picture book primed my spirit to believe in G’d. But it’s not hyperbole to say the book made me believe in forces greater than ourselves, forces that sit beside us when we mourn, bereft over our burst balloons; forces that settle around us bigger and grander than we ever thought possible transporting us to places we never imagined.
Albert Lamorisse died in a plane crash thirty-eight years ago last week. Merci Monsieur. Merci mille fois.