Queen of the Falls
Queen of the Falls
Written and illustrated by Chris Van Allsburg
Published by Houghton Mifflin Books for Children, 2011
ISBN # 978-0547315812
What is a poor 62-year old charm school teacher to do in 1901 when forced to close her school and lose her source of income? How about go over Niagara Falls in a barrel? In Queen of the Falls, multiple Caldecott Medal winner Chris Van Allsburg offers another compelling picture book about extraordinary characters and events, this time by venturing into the realm of nonfiction. Meet Annie Edson Taylor, the first person ever to perform the perilous stunt. But Annie’s story doesn’t end there, as the events leading up to the stunt and the aftermath are just as tumultuous as the barrel ride. Annie faces obstacles due to her status as an elderly woman, and the fame and fortune she seeks do not come as easy as she expects. The written text of the book is quite detailed, but the deeper story about Annie’s earnestness, pride, determination, and disappointment lies in the pictures. As always in Van Allsburg’s artwork, paying close attention to facial expressions, body language, background events, and other subtle details will reward readers with additional story layers. His signature style of illustration is especially remarkable in this book, evoking the many turn-of-the-century photographs that document the Falls. The power of Van Allsburg’s drawings and text unite in a magnificent double-page spread of the barrel at the edge of the waterfall and a single written line like a photograph caption to emphasize it as the point of no return: “Oh, Lord,” she whispered, and then she was gone. An author’s note, bibliography, and list of other successful barrel riders are included at the end of the book. Altogether, the incredible story and beguiling illustrations are sure to keep readers enthralled.
- All About Niagara Falls. As one of the world’s most amazing natural landmarks, Niagara Falls draws thousands of visitors each year. From its geological foundations to its tourism infrastructure to its history of daredevil acts, Niagara Falls offers much to research and explore. Pair this book with other texts about Niagara Falls to gather a robust set of information. Use online resources (see Further Explorations below) as well as books and printed reference materials. Make sure to look at resources from both the U.S. and Canada since the site is actually shared and split by the two countries. Once the information is procured, create a class information book all about Niagara Falls, with students responsible for producing the various chapters, illustrations, charts, and other components.
- Focused Biographies. Although Queen of the Falls tells the story of Annie Edson Taylor’s life, it focuses only on the events surrounding her famous ride over Niagara Falls. Van Allsburg doesn’t mention her place or date of birth in the main text (he does in the author’s note at the book’s end), nor anything about her family life or other life proceedings. By doing so, Annie’s story becomes much more compelling and tightly written than other biographies. Study how Van Allsburg crafted this biography in order to highlight the importance of this event in Annie’s life. Look at how he introduces Annie and how he ends her tale. Consider the other people he describes and what their role was in the barrel ride. Then, have students pick one significant event in someone’s life and write a focused biography around it. Or, have students write a focused autobiography around something in their own lives.
- The Amazing Barrel. One wouldn’t normally think a barrel would offer much protection when falling off a 160+ ft. waterfall. Annie uses the analogy of an egg in a can when conceiving the design of her barrel. Have them explore the idea of the barrel. What other examples of protective vehicles or “packaging” follow a similar notion in everyday life? Without going into detailed physics (or perhaps with, depending on the age of your students), discuss the concepts behind the structures. You may also want to connect the discussion to the “Egg Drop” activity that many teachers assign to introduce or foster students’ learning of physics.
- Daredevils and Stunt Performers. Barrel riding wasn’t the only stunt performed at Niagara Falls. People also attempted tightrope walking, diving, and flying planes behind the falls. Collectively, their stories contribute to the popular appeal and history of the site. Have students research their stories and compare them to Annie Taylor’s. Who were some of these other daredevils and stunt performers, and what were their reasons for attempting such death-defying acts? Why were such performances common in the last century, and why are they rare these days? Who are today’s famous stunt performers, and how do they compare to those of Annie Taylor’s day? Compile the information into a class book, blog, wiki, or glog to share with others.
- Flash Fame. Annie Edson Taylor hoped to quickly become famous and make a fortune with her barrel ride. Identify other headlines within the past few years about people who also hoped to capitalize on some sort of get-rich-and-famous-quick plan (e.g., “Balloon Dad” Richard Heene’s hoax, or any reality TV endorsed product). Did they attain the success they sought? What were the risks involved, and were they ultimately worth it? Have students consider who the consumers of those plans or products are supposed to be and whether as a society, we have empowered them.
- Ageism. Could this person in front of them, this grandma, really be the brave and fearless Mrs. Taylor who dared to ride over the waterfall? Annie encounters much disbelief that an elderly woman was the one who survived the death-defying feat. Other instances of ageism appear throughout the book, as well: Frank Russell swindles her in the end and Billy Banks finds a younger woman to impersonate her. Discuss and research the concept of ageism with students. Some online articles that might be helpful are “Ageism in America” (http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/5868712/ns/health-aging/t/ageism-america). What examples of ageism can they find in everyday life? Why doesn’t it get as much attention as other –isms (e.g., racism, sexism, etc.), and should it?
Chris Van Allsburg’s discussion about creating Queen of the Falls
Images of Annie Edson Taylor – Niagara Falls Public Library
Conquering Niagara – a National Geographic Channel special
Early Motion Pictures of Niagara Falls (American Side) – Library of Congress
Niagara Falls State Park – USA
Official Visitor Information for Niagara Falls – USA
How Going Over Niagara Works – How Stuff Works
Charles, V. M. (2001). Maiden of the mist: A legend of Niagara Falls. Toronto: Stoddart Kids.
- A retelling of the Iroquois legend about Lelawala, the Seneca Tribe’s chief’s daughter who uses Niagara Falls to make an incredible sacrifice and save her tribe.
Cummins, J. (2008). Women daredevils: thrills, chills, and frills. Ill. by C. Harness. New York: Dutton Juvenile.
- Fourteen women are profiled for their amazing thrill-seeking stunts and challenge to gender norms from 1880 to 1929.
Granfield, L. (1989). All about Niagara Falls: Fascinating facts, dramatic discoveries. New York: Morrow Junior Books.
- An information book filled with facts and photographs about the Falls.
McCully, E. A. (2000). Mirette & Bellini cross Niagara Falls. New York: Putnam Juvenile.
- A picture book in a series about the adventures of a young tightrope walker and her guardian.
Rappaport, D. (1991). Living dangerously: American women who risked their lives for adventure. New York: HarperCollins.
- A collective biography of six women who broke gender barriers to perform incredible, historical feats.
About Grace Enriquez
Grace is an associate professor of language and literacy at Lesley University. A former English Language Arts teacher, reading specialist, and literacy consultant, she teaches and writes about children’s literature, critical literacies, and literacies and embodiment. Grace is co-author of The Reading Turn-Around and co-editor of Literacies, Learning, and the Body.
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