Helium (or the beginning of my lifelong affair with books)

H Balloon

My head is in the clouds...

I had a handful of other ideas for H and then out of the blue…floated Helium. Here is my helium story, and how it helped me fall in love with books and reading.

I grew up in the 1970s, back before helium balloons got their bad rap of having an ecological footprint the size of a Yeti’s. Back before the buzz words of “sustainable” and “renewable” resources, and realizing that helium could and will, in fact, run out someday. MRI machines, fiber optics, LCD screens – all of which require helium – were not part of our everyday lives back then. In fact, they were advances beyond most of our wildest imaginations.

But give a child a book, a balloon and a postcard…and the imagination soars limitless.

My elementary school library had a program called Book Balloons. At some point in the year (spring, if I recall correctly), the librarian would give each student a postcard for every book they read and wrote a short summary about. 1 book, 1 postcard. 5 books, 5 postcards, etc. I can’t remember what was printed on the postcard, but we were instructed to add our name, the title we read, and the school’s address on them.

The school library was already one of my favorite places to escape to – I can remember vividly the old clawfoot bathtub that sat in the reading room. It was painted orange and had huge frog-shaped pillows inside, and one lucky child (or two, if we were well-behaved) could perch inside and read. And when Book Balloons came along, it was my quest to amass as many as I possibly could. I lived in that library. I’m sure I made my way through the old reliable series and authors – Cleary and Blume were early favorites – year after year, always adding new titles to my reading repertoire.

The event culminated in the entire student body congregating on the hill behind the school, with each child’s postcard(s) tied to bright yellow balloons and in one joyous moment, releasing our balloons into the air.


a balloon for each book...the imagination soars

Within a week, postcards would begin to arrive at the school. People would write on the back of the card, noting where they had found them, and send them back. The Librarian would staple the cards to a bulletin board so we could all admire how far our Book Balloons had sailed.

Some would come back tattered and muddy. I could only imagine where they were plucked from – fields and roads, trees and puddles. I wish I could remember how far some had traveled – geography escaped me then, and my memory escapes me now. I want to say I remember one year, we had a card come back many months after, with a Canadian postmark on it. We lived about 80 miles from the border, but to kids who couldn’t drive, this seemed very exotic!

Two more wishes: I wish I had kept my old postcards. It would be nice to look at them now, and to show them to my own child. To see my third grade handwriting, and what I had read that year. And to read what the stranger who found my card might have written back.

I also wish that a Book Balloon would find its way into my yard now. I would carefully dispose of the latex remnants so no birds would choke on them, recycle the string so no landfill would ever be burdened with it. I would take the postcard and read it carefully, and try to picture the child out there, somewhere, who had read a book, earned a postcard and a balloon to carry it. And I’d put a lot of thought into what I would write back to them. Perhaps encourage them to keep on reading, keep on dreaming, keep on soaring…even if helium balloons become outlawed and extinct some day.


24 thoughts on “Helium (or the beginning of my lifelong affair with books)

  1. I’m a child of the 70’s as well and I remember doing something similar in elementary school, but I don’t remember it being for reading. I just remember it being really exciting to watch as all those balloons took flight and wondering where they would go. I grew up in KS and from a very young age, I wanted to go somewhere else. I spent a lot of time in the library in high school:)

  2. Terri says:

    What a great idea! I love the idea of finding a postcard with a book reccomendation on it.

    Thanks for the post! Happy A to Z-ing!

    • jesstopper says:

      Thanks for stopping by, Terri! I don’t know how kids could spread the book love these days, without sending balloons into the atmosphere. Maybe internet pen pals? I am sure school libraries are still thinking of creative ways!

  3. Beverly says:

    What a fun, wonderful memory. Our school sent off balloons, but nothing as grand as this. And I loved Beverly Cleary, too. Still do. Ramona is one of the most charming, quirky characters I’ve ever read.

    • jesstopper says:

      Thanks for checking out my blog, Beverly! That must have been very cool to share a name with a favorite author growing up. 🙂 My mother used to compare me to Ramona…and I think some of her quirkiness is always in the back of my mind when I write little kid characters!

  4. Kelli says:

    We did a one-time postcard/balloon release when I was in fifth grade in Yonkers, NY- and we got responses from exotic places like Long Island and Fort Lee, NJ ;).
    Coincidentally, I have an orange claw-foot tub in my bathroom. I wonder if……

  5. Donna Martin says:

    Hi…I’m hopping over from the A to Z challenge. Lovely post…good luck with the challenge.

    Donna L Martin

  6. Liz Brownlee says:

    What a lovely blog, and wonderful memory. I wince now when I see balloons released, all the wildlife they choke and snare etc, but oh, for a simpler time when wishes could fly and the wonder of such a event could be unclouded by guilt! I’m too from the A-Z.

    If you are interested, I’m blogging about endangered animals, I’m leaving you my A-Z link as blogger always identifies me as my shared blog with other authors – my A-Z is this one: http://www.lizbrownleepoet.com

  7. What a wonderful post…and without helium, it all wouldn’t have been possible. What a great idea, too, to encourage reading. I think I may just adopt that for my grandchildren who are in school.
    Stopping by on the A to Z Challenge.Kathy at Oak Lawn Images

  8. Wow! That’s just so cool that they used to do something like that. It sounds like a lot of fun. 🙂

    Cherie Reich – Author

    Surrounded by Books Reviews

  9. Lynn says:

    I hope you get a ballon with a postcard in it sometime. Lovely H post!

    Lynn from Good Things Happened

  10. Lynn says:

    What a lovely memory! I hope you get a balloon with a postcard in it sometime.

    Lynn from the challenge.

  11. jesstopper says:

    I shared the post with the Facebook group dedicated to my elementary school, asking if they remembered the Book Balloons. Many began sharing their memories! One girl kept her postcard – her balloon made it from Rochester, NY to Syracuse, NY. She said the writing is very faded but the person wrote a very nice note back. Another believes hers was the postcard mentioned in the blog – it came from a farmer many months later. So pleased to have triggered so many happy memories!

  12. Naila Moon says:

    What a cool post and a cool thing your school did.
    In spite of the balloon issues, I would love to receive a book card just like the ones you describe.
    ~Naila Moon


  13. smj274 says:

    this is a beautiful story, i just love the idea of books in the air and falling on farms and in trees etc. i also love the book bathtub idea, we had one as well! it was green and we too had to be good to sit in it to read.

  14. Brenda says:

    Lovely! Thank you. 🙂

  15. Damyanti says:

    That’s a lovely piece of nostalgia!

    Look forward to your challenge run…
    –Damyanti, Co-host A to Z Challenge April 2012

    Twitter: @AprilA2Z

  16. Jen Moss says:

    You must have gone to Martin B Anderson School #1! I loved those book balloons, too! And that clawfoot tub in the library came from my house, when my parents remodeled the bathroom!! Thanks for this lovely entry!

    • jesstopper says:

      Thanks so much for dropping a line, Jen – and I am thrilled to hear the story behind the tub! I always wondered where it came from, and whether it is still there now. Yes, class of 1982! 🙂

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