The Great Valentine’s Day Balloon Race by Adrienne Adams 1980 Picture Book

I’m a big fan of coloured pencil picture book illustrations and also a big fan of American artist Adrienne Adams so today I read a retro story from 1980. So, not that old. (It’s not old if I was alive. That’s how it works, right?)

A digital version of The Great Valentine’s Day Balloon Race is available (for free) on one hour loan from The Internet Archive. There you can also find A Woggle of Witches, A Halloween Happening, The Christmas Party and The Easter Egg Artists.


The Easter Egg Artists is the first in this series about a family of rabbits with one son and his friend from next door, who is a girl.

Guess what? It’s Orson Abbott (remember him in The Easter Egg Artists and The Christmas Party?) and his friend Bonnie who decide to make a balloon for the big Valentine’s Day race. Naturally they decorate it — with a big red heart. And naturally they enter the race, but you’ll have to read the book to find out who wins the race!

The Great Valentine’s Day Balloon Race dust cover copy

Do you really, though? Do you really need to read the book to find out who wins the race? Not if you’ve read enough picture books in your life. But! You don’t know how they win the race.


This story has a clear pedagogical intent with links to STEM. Young readers will learn that hot air balloons float because hot air is lighter than cold air.

More broadly, the rabbits’ first attempt to build a hot air balloon fails. They must try again until it works.

This section of the story reminds me of the scene from Wallace and Grommit: A Grand Day, when Wallace makes plans to build a rocket. He wants to visit the moon. First he prepares his sketch book and challenges himself to a game of noughts and crosses. He wins. Everyone knows, if you can win a game of noughts and crosses against yourself, you can do anything!

My favourite part is when finishes the stick-figure diagram of the rocket, then in lieu of any scientific knowledge whatsoever, frantically scribbles some thrust. (At least, I assume it’s called ‘thrust’, because I’ve seen Chicken Run more times than I like to count.)

I’m sure Adrienne Adams herself rode in a hot air balloon or talked to someone who did because she describes it perfectly:

The wind was just right, gentle but steady, and the balloons floated along together. The sun warmed them almost enough to keep them up. Only once in a while would a gas burner roar for a minute. The rest of the time, the quiet up there was almost scary. The balloonists could hear each other talking.

The Great Valentine’s Day Balloon Race

The one time I rode in a hot air balloon I was also struck by the silence (against the whooshing of the hot air thingo). When the burner is on, it’s really loud. In fact, the guy who owned the balloon had gone mostly deaf. I assume because of the noise of that thing? It’s surprising what we could hear from the ground. We flew over houses, quite a ways up, and you hear everything that happens on the ground. When you float over suburbs, dogs rush out and start barking up at you. Apparently the hot air balloon burner makes a high pitched sound audible only to dogs, and draws them out.

No dogs in this story, though. I love the illustrations, but kept hoping for a low angle view of the ground. Adrienne Adams didn’t give us one! I was hoping for something like this:

A Japanese edition of Jack and the Beanstalk (illustrated by British artist John Shelley, who lived in Tokyo 1987–2008.)
Here’s another Beanstalk illustration. Not all illustrators of this English tale include a panorama like this, but I love it when they do. This one’s by Anatoly Itkin, a Russian illustrator born in 1931.

However, I do really love the illustrations that we do get.

First of all, why are they painting eggs? I associate painted eggs with Easter, not Valentine’s Day, but maybe that’s just because I don’t come from a culture which celebrates Valentine’s Day?

This is the outro image. They were painting eggs to turn into tiny hot air balloon replicas.
We do get this, from the POV of Orson and Bonnie, who win the race due to Bonnie’s smarts. This was the era of second wave feminism, and now girls were credited for having the ideas.
Here it looks like we’ve got the son on the sewing machine. Previous to about 1980, you wouldn’t find boys on the end of a sewing machine. On the recto side of the page, Bonnie (in pink) is cutting the heavy fabric. Both parents are working on the basket structure. Mother hands Father a pair of pliers.
Here’s a wonderful interior view, with Mother and Father in the foreground, Orson and Bonnie at Bonnie’s house across the way. I really appreciate how Adrienne Adams makes use of black.
A nice ironic gap between words and pictures. This father doesn’t look very bouncy to me.
Bonnie’s the Ideas Girl but Orson gets the honor of inflating the home-made balloon. This reminds me of the time I tried to make wings. I never really thought they’d work, but I did use a lot of paper, cane sticks and tape, and roped my friend into helping. A lot of time was spent on the decorating. There were many feathers to draw. At one point my friend, clearly bored of drawing feathers, said, “These wings aren’t going to work, you know.” Of course I knew. The fun was in the making and the imagining, and she had just broken the unspoken agreement that we wouldn’t say the quiet part out loud.
I really like this style of illustrating vehicles. It’s timeless. Those colourful balloons make for great composition, as well.

But I want to show you my favourite illustration of a hot air balloon, ever.

This is a barrage balloon by Dame Laura Knight (1877-1970) It’s called A Balloon Site, Coventry (1943). The fabric is magnificent.
Yeah, you know who won.

On paper, things look fine. Sam Dennon recently inherited significant wealth from his uncle. As a respected architect, Sam spends his days thinking about the family needs and rich lives of his clients. But privately? Even his enduring love of amateur astronomy is on the wane. Sam has built a sustainable-architecture display home for himself but hasn’t yet moved into it, preferring to sleep in his cocoon of a campervan. Although they never announced it publicly, Sam’s wife and business partner ended their marriage years ago due to lack of intimacy, leaving Sam with the sense he is irreparably broken.

Now his beloved uncle has died. An intensifying fear manifests as health anxiety, with night terrors from a half-remembered early childhood event. To assuage the loneliness, Sam embarks on a Personal Happiness Project:

1. Get a pet dog

2. Find a friend. Just one. Not too intense.




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