She could remember standing in a park near the falls, hypnotized by the sight and sound, and holding her father’s hand as they took a walk that would lead them closer. That’s what everyone wonders when they see Niagara . . . How close will their courage let them get to it?
At the turn of the nineteenth century, a retired sixty-two-year-old charm school instructor named Annie Edson Taylor, seeking fame and fortune, decided to do something that no one in the world had ever done before—she would go over Niagara Falls in a wooden barrel. Come meet the Queen of the Falls and witness with your own eyes her daring ride!
Amazon Exclusive: A Letter from Chris Van Allsburg, Author and Illustrator
Dear Amazon Readers,
I first saw Niagara Falls when I was twelve years old. My family was making a winter trip from the Midwest to New England. We arrived in Niagara close to sunset, with plans to spend the night. I don’t remember if it was my sister’s and my demand that required we see the falls right away, but that is what happened.
Over the years, I have had opportunities to visit sites renowned for their beauty and awe-inspiring nature and have occasionally been disappointed, but the falls exceeded my expectations. They were far more majestic and awesome than my twelve-year-old mind had been able to imagine.
I viewed the waterfall initially from a park. It was close enough to the mist rising from the falling water and drifting across the park that the trees within it had—because of the cold winter air—become encased in ice. The sun was low in the sky and the light that penetrated the mist glistened off the trees, creating an effect that made it seem as if the world was made of glass. In the background, the constant roar of the falls seemed to insist on my attention, no matter how magical the surrounding landscape.
This mist made a strong impression and left me with the peculiar memory of a place that was both enchanting and frightening.
Many years passed, and sometime in the early 1970s I happened upon a magazine article called "The Daredevils of Niagara Falls." I discovered that over the previous century, the Falls had attracted a world-class group of eccentric risk takers. Among the most remarkable of these was the first person to go over the falls in a barrel. I was amazed to learn that this individual was a sixty-two-year-old retired charm school teacher named Annie Edson Taylor. Just as amazing to me was that I’d gotten to the age of twenty-two and had never heard of this woman and what she had done.
Why, I wondered, hadn’t I learned about this in school? I wouldn’t compare it to Lindberg crossing the Atlantic, but still, it seemed extraordinary in its own way, and yet had evidently been left to history.
About a year and a half ago, in the spirit of finding new challenges, I decided to undertake a project that was a change from the fantasies that make up a large part of my work. Recalling the pleasure I got as a child from reading biographies of unusual or accomplished Americans, and how satisfying it was to learn about American history and culture that way, I decided to write just such a biography. I couldn’t decide who might make a worthy subject and who had not already been the subject of other books. There, from the recesses of memory, sprang the name Annie Taylor.
Researching Mrs. Taylor’s life provided details that made it clear that her story was not one that fit into a conventional narrative of the determined underdog who triumphs over the challenges and obstacles placed before him or her, and emerges with admiration and rich rewards. Annie’s story was more complicated than that—and, to me, more interesting.
My initial design for the book was horizontal, partly to accommodate longer text in a thirty-two-page format. I ultimately changed to a vertical shape when it became clear a forty-page format would allow for a more effective balance of text and pictures. (I was also persuaded by my colleagues at the publisher that a vertical format was more appropriate for a book about a monumental fall.)
I have included here two sketches for jacket designs I made when still thinking about a horizontal book, as well as an example of what a very early and rough draft looks like as I attempt to work out the text placement and picture sequence.
I hope you enjoy reading about the amazing adventures of Annie Edson Taylor.
Chris Van Allsburg (Click on Images to Enlarge)
Any kid who has beheld Niagara Falls—or even taken a good look at pictures of it—will be suitably gobsmacked by the true story of charm-school teacher Annie Edson Taylor, who, at age 62, decided on a whim to fund her golden years by being the first person over the falls. At first, local barrel makers turned her away in horror, but her determination was convincing, and on October 24, 1901, the reinforced and padded 160-pound vessel was dropped into the water in front of thousands of nervous spectators. Van Allsburg’s trademark framed illustrations have the unnerving stillness of old-timey photos, though they struggle for a while with settings unconducive to excitement. Once Taylor hits the water, though, Van Allsburg’s restraint becomes a master class in tension, keeping his drawings of the barrel’s interior small enough to communicate claustrophobia. Van Allsburg’s telling of the rest of the tale—Taylor’s failure to parlay her adventure into cash—is especially affecting, and readers will embrace her resolve. Grades 3-5. --Daniel Kraus