Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Queen of the Falls (Non Fiction Picture Book)

Written and Illustrated by Chris Van Allsburg
Houghton Mifflin Books for Children, 2011

Two-time Caldecott Medal winner, Chris Van Allsburg,author of Jumanji, The Polar Express, and and The Widow's Broom, tackles the true tale of a formidable woman in Queen of the Falls. The story revolves around former charm school teacher Annie Edson Taylor. For many years, Ms. Taylor offered classes in "dance and fine manners(you know, like the concierge did for Julia Robert’s character in Pretty Woman?!). Van Allsburg describes the sixty-two year old widow as, "short, plump, and fussy." A resident of Bay City, Michigan, Ms. Taylor was eventually due to close her school and say goodbye to her final student. 

Worried about her future and the possibility of ending up in the poorhouse, Annie began to ponder what work she could do to strike it rich. She could not envision herself doing ordinary tasks like cleaning houses or working in retail. Annie dreamed of a "get rich quick" scheme. Finally, she got it! "Annie Taylor would go over Niagara falls in a barrel."

After reading an article on the tourists at Niagara Falls, she decides that she would go over the falls in a barrel. In the years before reality television shows and stunt casting, Annie seemed to realize that the sensational nature of a sixty-two year old woman doing a daredevil act would draw many spectators, and hopefully reap a large monetary reward. (Even Evel Knievel would be shaking in his jump suit!)

Annie knew that she would need a good strong barrel, and quickly drew up plans. At first she was turned away by the barrel maker foreman, but her tenacity soon changed his mind and he put his three best men on the project. Annie was very hands on in the making of the barrel. “Annie worked alongside them, picking out each piece of the thick white oak they used.”

After the completion of her barrel, Annie hired Frank Russell. Van Allsburg does a masterful job of making this character look slimy, but not evil. Annie actually lied to Mr. Russell, telling him she was a woman of fourty-two years old (correct me if I’m wrong, Ms. Charm School, but a lady NEVER reveals her age!) “She looked old enough to be someone’s grandmother and appeared to have spent considerably more time baking pies than climbing mountains.”

Mr. Russell knew that Annie was determined. So, he agreed to represent her. If successful, he could take Annie on the circuit to lecture halls and theaters across the country. "When Annie and her barrel finally arrived in Niagra, Frank Russell made sure there were newspaper reporters at the train station." Mr. Russell clearly new how to promote Annie, but the question remained: Would she survive the fall? 

After waiting ten days from her arrival at Niagara, the day finally came for Annie to take her plunge over the falls. Annie and her barrel  were rowed out into the river by Fred Truesdale and his assistant, Billy Holleran. The men and Annie landed on a small island downriver. She strapped herself into the barrel, cushioned by multiple pillows. Annie says, "So long, boys," and she begins her bumpy journey towards the falls. As the barrel, with Annie in it, gushed over the falls, the spectators cheered, gasped, and then fell silent in anticipation of her emergence. 

Annie soon is taken out of the barrel, in one piece! Although, bruised and sore, she was able to walk to the doctor waiting to examine her. Now a true legend, Mr. Russell and Annie set out to capitalize on her daring adventure. Sadly, Mr. Russell ends up stealing Annie's famed barrel. Annie has a new barrel made and then hires Mr. Billy Banks to manage her post-Niagara Falls career. Again, she is robbed by Banks of her famed barrel. Not defeated, Annie returns to Niagara and sets up her own stand to peddle her post cards and sign autographs. 

Children's literature stalwart Chris Van Allsburg has scored yet again with this remarkable tale.
Van Allsburg once said that:
Illustrating is simply a matter of drawing something I've already experienced in my mind's eye. Because I see the story unfold as if it were on film, the challenge is deciding precisely which moment should be illustrated and from which point of view (qtd. in Cullinan, 1989).  Van Allsburg's technical skill and imaginative recreation of Annie Taylor's quest for fame and fortune is nothing less than masterful. This book is such an inspiration, yet it has a cautionary tale: Everyone does have their fifteen minutes of fame, but what do you do when the clock runs out?!

I remember back to the excitement of Jumanji. How thrilling it was! And then getting to watch the movie was even more exciting! It is fansincating that Annie Taylor's story has been made into a play which is now playing off-Broadway. Queen of the Mist is now showing at Transport Group, a very progressive theatre with a strong mission towards developing new work. How wonderful for students in the New York area to read Van Allsburg's beautiful book and then to see the stage production! (My dreams come true!) 

Filled with struggle and genuine heartache, 
I personally loved this story. The perseverance and  the tenacity of Ms. Annie Edson Taylor can be an example of how to pick yourself up, and try again! 

Annie Edson Talor died in 1921 at the age of 82.

Great References! 
Niagara. Assisting [Mrs. Anna E.] Taylor out of the barrel[sic] after her terrible trip over the falls
Niagara: Helping Mrs. [Anna E.] Taylor over the rocks below the falls
Niagrara. The barrel[sic] with its human freight on the way to the dreadful trip

A GREAT TED Talk with Chris Van Allsburg !

Another video of Chris Van Allsburg discussing Queen of the Falls

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