Queen of the Falls.
Chris Van Allsburg.
Houghton Mifflin. 2010.
Chris Van Allsburg has created some undeniable classics of children's literature from The Polar Express to Jumanji and could, quite frankly, rest on his laurels at this point and we would still be deeply impressed. His choice to tell the story of Annie Edson Taylor, the first person to go over Niagara Falls in a barrel, is not only a bold choice for a picture book but one that proves to be uniquely suited to his realistic drawing style. This is not a cartoon biography by any stretch, but rather a narrative that is lovingly told by an author clearly captivated by his subject and determined to give her the respect she richly deserves. The fact that few of us have ever heard of this sixty-something retired charm school instructor says a lot more about the history we value then it does about Taylor and what she accomplished.
Consider this: Taylor went over Niagara Falls in 1901 in a barrel she herself designed and supervised building. Wrap your head around that for a minute and then wonder why there hasn't been a movie of the week about her before now. (Oh, right. She was over sixty at the time.)
Van Allsburg opens with a dramatic illustration of the falls with a building superimposed within them to give readers some perspective. He tells readers to "imagine being as small as a flea, standing on a sidewalk next to an open fire hydrant". With a firm grip on just how it would thus feel to be near the falls, he then teases us with the fact that a barrel has indeed plunged over it before backing up and moving two hundred miles away to Bay City, Michigan where Annie Taylor was in financial trouble. Facing the prospect of the poorhouse, "where old people without money or a family to care for them went to live out their years", Taylor was a woman in search of a plan to provide financial salvation. Her decision to go over the falls in a barrel came after reading an article about summer tourists there, an "aha moment" that Van Allsburg captures perfectly with his drawing of this wholly unremarkable looking woman who was destined to do a remarkable thing.
From the moment she latched onto the idea, Van Allsburg leads readers through the process to design the barrel and have it built and Taylor's search for someone to market her exploits. From there the process in which she actually went over is deceptively simple. Van Allsburg shows her meeting with people in Niagara, hiring someone to row her into position and the crowds who waited and watched to see if she would survive. (The drawings of Taylor inside the barrel are particularly affecting.) What comes afterwards though, when she went on the road with her barrel to tell ticket-buying crowds the story of what she had done, presents a sad turn in the story. People didn't expect someone who looked like Annie Taylor to have accomplished such an amazing feat. Clearly, the desire for beautiful young celebrities is not a modern concern:
The reaction to Annie was always the same. Excited crowds quickly lost interest when they discovered the fearless "Queen of the Falls" was a little old lady.
Ultimately, the original barrel was stolen and Taylor was reduced to sitting at a card table in Niagara, perched in front of a replica, selling autographed postcards of herself for a nickel. She remains however, as Van Allsburg explains in a brief afterword (along with a photograph of the real Annie Taylor) the only woman to have gone over the falls alone. Hopefully, with the first class treatment afforded her here by this award-winning author and illustrator, she will achieve some modicum of fame and respect. We should all know the Annie Edson Taylor story and we should all be deeply impressed both by what she did and by Van Allsburg fantastic retelling of her adventure.
(Recommended not only for younger readers but those up into the middle grade years looking for an interesting biography subject. Even high schoolers will be captivated by what Taylor accomplished and the beautiful way Van Allsburg tells her story. Heck—adults are going to love this one, too!)
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