Floating a 'Balloon' Idea

Local author mines old newspapers for new children's book.
Originally printed in The San Francisco Examiner, Novemeber 26, 2004
Local TV journalist-turned-author Dorothy Kupcha Leland knows how kids' minds work. After all, she's got kids of her own. So when she happened upon the story of a Bay Area newsboy who made the front pages of the local newspapers in 1853 when he took a ride on a runaway hot air balloon, she knew that in order to capture and hold the interest of young readers, she would have to do more than just present the facts.

"You have to make it fun for them," she says. "So you have to sort of sneak the history in there. That's the best way to reach them."

"The Balloon Boy of San Francisco," Leland's second historically based novel for kids, started as nothing more than newspaper clippings at the State Library in Sacramento.

But with a little research -- actually, a lot of research -- Leland managed to piece together a detailed account of young Ready Gates' fantastic voyage and, in the process paint a fascinating portrait of everyday life in the bustling Bay Area just five years after the discovery of gold in the nearby Sierras.

"I was looking wherever I could for clues that would show what life was like at that time," explains Leland. "And I found a lot. But it still involved me doing a lot of reading between the lines."

Leland peppers her fictionalized retelling of Gates' story with colorful historical nuggets culled from the papers of the day and long-retired terms and expressions that were common in 1853, such as the "speaking trumpet," a precursor to the megaphone, which newsboys used to herald the day's headlines.

"I really wanted the story to have that 1853 flavor," she explains. "That was important to me. I thought kids would find it interesting how people talked back then but I didn't want to get too bogged down in language and end up losing them."

One of the things that Leland believes young readers in the Bay Area will find particularly interesting is her use of regional references. For instance, in doing her research for the book, she came across an ad for a fortune teller on Dupont Street (now Grant Street) between Vallejo and Broadway, whom she managed to work into the story.

"People get a real kick out of reading a story when they have a regional connection to it or to some element," she says. "So I tried to include as many regional details as I could work in."

Nevertheless, she believes Gates' story is captivating enough on its own and expects that young readers outside of the Bay Area will find it equally as interesting.

"It's a fun story that anyone can enjoy, really," she adds. "I mean it obviously grabbed me."

2004 San Francisco Independent