The waiting is over, and one little boy is headed to the pier to meet his sailor Daddy, who is finally coming home. Tied around his wrist is a red balloon that is shaped like a heart, with the words ‘Welcome Home’ printed on it. This is how the boy’s Daddy will find him easily in the bustling crowd at the pier. He won’t look at the band, or the woman giving out flowers, or the tall, tall man who is waiting for his daughter. He will look straight at the red balloon that is shaped like a heart and find his family waiting for him. But suddenly, the balloon comes loose, and no one can grab it before it floats up into the sky. How will his Daddy find him in that big crowd without the balloon, and will he still know his little boy after such a long time away?
This is my final Veteran’s Day post, and I’ve saved the best for last. I love books that reveal the secret fears of children and help them get resolved in the safe context of a story. The beginning of this story makes it clear that this is not the first time the boy’s father has gone away and come back, but it is the first time that he has been afraid that his father won’t know him. Fear and anxiety is always new, and this story does a good job of discussing it without making you feel like you’re in a therapy session. The story feels like it’s about the descriptions, the cereal for breakfast, the gigantic ship that brings the sailors, the girl who tries to hold his balloon string and, of course, the red balloon that is shaped like a heart. But when the balloon slips away and the boy has to face his true fear, we all realize what the story has been about the whole time. The boy needs to understand that although the balloon pointed his father in the right direction, he didn’t need it to know them at all.
My daughters all enjoyed this story. They were so delighted with the pictures and descriptions of balloons and banners and bands and flowers that the real message of the story kind of sneaked up on them at the end, which is exactly the point. We all learn best when we don’t realize we’re being taught something. My four year old was the biggest surprise. I did not expect her to like this one, but she just loved the big boat. She always came back to it, enchanted by the idea of a boat as big as a building, so big that the top of it didn’t even show in the picture once it was docked at the pier. As I mentioned in my Veteran’s Day post, my husband never deployed, but this book is about the heart, the feeling of a homecoming, and that is something that all kids can relate to. And I feel that the more that kids are exposed to the experiences that other kids go through, the better it will be for them. This is one of the reasons I love picture books so much- they are the one hundred percent best way to expose children to the “other.” In a picture book, what would be different, confusing, and scary suddenly becomes engaging, accessible and relatable. Happy Veteran’s Day everybody, and happy reading!
Read about Eve Bunting and find a list of her other books.
Find out more about the life and work of Kay Life.