Magpie, a homeless street urchin whose only friend is Coco, her pet rooster, survives as a pickpocket in southern France.
It is 1783, and there is an intense rivalry between England and France to create a device that can fly. When Magpie inadvertently becomes part of the Montgolfier brothers’ test flight of a huge paper balloon, actually flying for a few minutes, she becomes completely enthralled even though she is badly injured in the rapid descent. They bring her to their home, where she becomes a special friend to Pierre, Joseph-Michel Mongolfier’s son, and his pet duck, Voltaire. The experiments continue, with Magpie’s observations and ideas helping to improve the balloon prototypes. The brothers are commanded by Louis XVI to demonstrate their invention at Versailles. The balloon is to carry only a sheep, Coco, and Voltaire. Many exciting and dangerous adventures ensue in this picaresque, with false friends, highway robbery, a duel, possible spies, a near deadly attack, and more. Magpie narrates her story in an immediate present tense. Historical figures are woven seamlessly with the invented characters, as are imagined events with the actual, recorded fact of the balloon demonstration. Magpie is at once suspicious and accepting, grateful and wary, a good true friend, and altogether delightful. She is biracial, with an absent Algerian father and (deceased) white, French mother, though her identity plays no part in the story; the book otherwise hews to a white default.
Entertaining, fast-paced, and almost true. (historical note) (Historical fiction. 8-12)