Author Katherine Locke combines mystery, history, and time travel in this first book of “The Balloonmakers” series. The protagonist, sixteen-year-old Ellie Baum, is on a class trip to West Berlin when she’s suddenly whisked away by a red balloon to East Berlin, time traveling back to 1988 when East and West Berlin were separated by a wall. Ellie’s grandfather, Benno, had been saved from the Lodz Ghetto by a girl with a magical red balloon. Chapters about Benno and his family’s experiences during the Holocaust are scattered throughout the book.
In East Berlin, Ellie meets two young adults, Kai and Mitzi, who are members of a guild that utilizes science and magic to help people escape via balloon from East Berlin to West Berlin — and to freedom. Both Kai and Mitzi are members of a persecuted minority, as Kai is of Roma descent and Mitzi is gay. Unfortunately, no one in the guild knows how to send Ellie back to West Berlin and her own time period. As Kai and Mitzi help hide Ellie from the communist authorities in East Berlin, they develop close friendships.
One day, the group makes a gruesome discovery — they find the dead bodies of people who were unsuccessful in escaping. After this incident, Ellie receives citizenship papers so she can move around openly. Will Kai and Mitzi harness science and magic to return Ellie to her real life? This book keeps the reader in suspense but it’s challenging, at times, to keep track of the story’s multiple threads.
Recommended for readers ages 14 to 18, especially those who enjoy adventure and time travel tales.