Queen of the Falls written and illustrated by Chris Van Allsburg (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
Of course I admire other books by Chris Van Allsburg, who won the Caldecott Medal for The Polar Express and Jumanji, but I was skeptical about a book based on the true story of how Annie Edson Taylor went over Niagara Falls in a wooden barrel one hundred years ago. I knew the story of the 62-year-old widow who was brave and maybe desperate — students were leaving the charm schools she ran, and she wanted to avoid the poorhouse — but I couldn’t help thinking about other intrepid women who were both daring and somehow helped the world.
Annie Edson Taylor was pure daredevil without much curiosity about say, the natural history of the falls, and she didn’t make a pretense of doing her feat in the name of women’s rights. But from the first to last page of this longish picture book, Chris Van Allsburg drew me smack into the story of a complicated woman I came to care for. With a nod to his background in fantasy, the first page shows a seventeen-story building amid the falls, to give us scale, then a close-up of a terrified young girl pointing toward a barrel: Annie is hurtling down. We then jump to background leading up to the event, and I first fell for Annie in the picture in which she’s dreamily and bravely waltzing alone, while a long little boy, her last student, sits in the corner. Black and white portraits masterfully show a rich variety of mood and poses: pride, defiance, tenderness, recklessness, her scientific eye (she oversees the barrel making), grace, sense of theater, and with view of her within the barrel: “Annie could feel only one thing: complete discombobulation.”
While there’s sadness when her feat doesn’t bring the riches she hoped for, the last page ends with Annie’s pride and contentment. I was deeply contented, too.
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