In the award-winning young reader's fantasy novel Airborn, author Kenneth Oppel creates a world in which today's airplanes do not exist. Instead, the author invented airships that are much more similar to hot air balloons.
The 14-year-old protagonist Matt Cruse works as a cabin boy on an airship named Aurora. Matt has worked the job to provide for his mother and sisters since his father died in an accident. One day, while serving as lookout, Matt spies an airship that had crashed on an island, and its severely injurred captain, Benjamin Molloy, was still alive. Molloy lives long enough to ask Matt in a "scratchy" voice, "Did you see them?" and speaks of something sailing all around that "no one's. Ever. Seen [before]" (p. 20). After Molloy's death, Matt begins to suspect Molloy had been speaking of some mysterious, "beautiful creature" (p. 21).
A whole year after Molloys death, Kate de Vries and her chaperone Marjorie Simpkins board the Aurora, and Kate is soon revealed to be the granddaughter of the deceased Benjamin Malloy. She shows Matt her grandfather's journal filled with drawings of flying animals that look like panthers. Kate is determined to fly the same path on the Aurora that her grandfather took in order to find the mysterious animals. However, not long after she boards the Aurora, the ship is attacked by a band of air pirates led by Vikram Szpirglas. Before the pirates can leave the ship, taking their plunder with them, both the pirate ship and the Aurora are overtaken by a violent storm, causing the Aurora to crash land on the exact same island Matt had found Molloy on before, the island detailed in Molloy's journal.
Kate persuades Matt to search the forest with her for evidence of her grandfather's animals, where they find a skeleton of an animal that looks just like her grandfather's drawings. On a second trip into the woods by herself, Kate hopes to find a live one for a photograph. Matt goes out to track her down and finds her just as she's being chased by one of the carnivorous animals. However, their run for their lives takes them into the pirates' camp. The two develop a romance escaping from the pirates and freeing the Aurora from being held hostage by the pirates.