One-Minute Book Reviews

December 12, 2011

Chris Van Allsburg’s ‘Queen of the Falls’ – A Barrel of Female Heroism

Filed under: Children's Books,Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 2:59 am
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Annie Edson Taylor learned that some things are harder than going over Niagara Falls in a barrel

Queen of the Falls. By Chris Van Allsburg. Houghton Mifflin, 40 pp., $18.99. Ages 6 and up.

By Janice Harayda

No living American picture-book artist hits notes as high as Chris Van Allsburg does as often as he does. For more than thirty years he has been writing books that are at once dramatic and restrained by elegant taste. He never panders to children or their parents with cuteness or dumbing-down. And because he writes and illustrates his stories, his words and pictures work as a duet instead of dueling solos.

Van Allsburg achieves his effects partly through superb pencil draftsmanship. He collects Mission Style furniture, which has clean horizontal and vertical lines that set off the grain of the wood, and his illustrations have a similar quality. Every image reveals the texture of what it depicts — a chair, blades of grass, the mutton-chop sideburns on a turn-of-the-century newspaper reporter.
A recent case in point Queen of the Falls, Van Allsburg’s first nonfiction book. It tells a story of female heroism and its aftermath. In 1901 Annie Edson Taylor became the first person to go over Niagara Falls in a barrel and survive. Some sources say that Taylor took her plunge on her 63rd birthday, and while she is known to have lied about her age, photographs show that she was well past youth. In the fashion of the day, she wore an ankle-length skirt.

Van Allsburg evokes his setting with shifting perspectives tones that resemble sepia but have more warmth. Taylor enters her barrel watched by a box turtle with design on its shell that echoes the ribs of her container, a visual rhyme. Then comes a two-page bleed of Niagara Falls with a barrel atop them and the line: “ ‘Oh, Lord,’ she whispered, and then she was gone.” The next spread shows the onlookers, including a bull terrier, Van Allsburg’s artistic signature.

Why would anyone undertake such a reckless act? Taylor seems to have embarked on her mission out of desperation more than daredevil streak. She was a widow living a boarding house in Bay City, Michigan, after her once-busy charm school failed, and she hoped that her feat would bring fame and enough money for a secure old age. That it didn’t work out that way makes her story as poignant as it is exciting and gives a double meaning to the title of Queen of the Falls. Van Allsburg writes:

“When Annie was still back in Bay City, imagining her path to fame and fortune, she believed going over Niagara Falls in a barrel would be the hard part, but she was wrong.”

That comment amounts to a chilling understatement. Taylor faded from view after the initial fascination with her ride wore off. Hucksters exploited her, and people snubbed her lecture tour because she lacked the glamour they had expected. Faced with indifference to an act for which she had risked her life, she stopped touring, sold postcards for pennies near the falls, and died poor.

Queen of the Falls is about the vulnerability of older women to poverty and neglect, but it is also about hope. Van Allsburg invests Taylor with dignity and courage amid continual hardship. In a typical passage, he avoids speculating about how she felt when she saw all the empty seats on her lecture tour but writes gently that, after a while, “The widow had run out of steam.” For all her disappointments, Taylor kept her self-respect, and Van Allsburg makes you see why that may have been as much of an achievement as the one that led to her evanescent fame. Many full-scale biographies of exceptional Americans have said less about the character of their subjects than Van Allsburg does in this short book about the Midwestern widow who remains the only woman to have gone over the falls alone.

Best line/picture: The two pages that show Annie’s barrel about to go over the fall and the single line of text: “ ‘Oh, Lord,’ she whispered, and then she was gone.”

Worst line/picture: “The [charm] school’s owner and only teacher was a short, plump, fussy 62-year-old widow named Annie Edson Taylor.” Some sources disagree that Taylor was 62 when she began planning her feat, and others agree but say that because of the time it took to design her barrel, she made her trip over the falls on her 63rd birthday. Queen of the Falls would have benefited from an endnote about the source Van Allsburg used for her age and why he chose it.

Recommendation? A teacher described Queen of the Falls on Twitter it a “spectacular read-aloud book” that engaged her students and inspired “plenty of questions.”

Furthermore: A review of Van Allsburg’s alphabet book, The Z Was Zapped, also appeared on this site.

About the author: Van Allsburg won Caldecott medals for Jumanji and The Polar Express. His The Mysteries of Harris Burdick inspired the new collection The Chronicles of Harris Burdick.

You can also follow Jan (@janiceharayda) on Twitter at or by clicking on the “Follow” button in the right sidebar on this site.

© 2011 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

February 28, 2009

Pat Cummings’s ‘Talking With Artists’ Series Lets Children Read About Their Favorite Picture-Book Illustrators and What They Do All Day

Any book in Pat Cummings’s three-volume Talking With Artists series would make a wonderful gift for a 6-to-9-year-old who loves to draw or paint. Each book is a colorful and often amusing collection of more than a dozen interviews (in a Q-and-A format) with well-known picture-book illustrators, typically supplemented by photos of their youthful and mature work and more. Vol. I includes Chris Van Allsburg and Leo and Diane Dillon; Vol. II, Brian Pinkney and Denise Fleming; Vol. III, Jane Dyer and Peter Sis. A winner of the Coretta Scott King Award, Cummings has a gift for getting artists to talk about their work in terms that will engage children. “I love what I do,” William Joyce says in the second book. “It’s like getting paid for recess.”

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

June 26, 2008

Ten Books That Should Have Been on Entertainment Weekly’s List of the ‘The 100 Best Reads’ of the Past 25 Years But Weren’t

I love Entertainment Weekly‘s annual list of the year’s worst books, which is usually right on the money. But the magazine’s list of “The New Classics: The 100 Best Reads From 1983 to 2008”,,20207076_20207387_20207349,00.html falls a bit wider of mark.

Here, off the top of my head, are 10 books that didn’t make the EW list. These titles appear in random order (and I hope to say more about some of them later):

1. Liar’s Poker (1989) Michael Lewis
2. The Polar Express (1985) by Chris Van Allsburg
3. Heartburn (1986) by Nora Ephron
4. Barbarians at the Gate (1990) by Brian Burrough
5. Collected Poems: Philip Larkin (1989) by Philip Larkin and Anthony Thwaite
6. A Problem From Hell: America and the Age of Genocide (2003) by Samantha Power
7. Richard Wilbur: Collected Poems 1943–2004 (2004) by Richard Wilbur
8. Late Wife: Poems (2005) by Claudia Emerson
9. Jane Austen’s Letters: New Edition (1997) by Jane Austen. Collected and edited by Deirdre Le Faye.
10. Hotel du Lac (1984) by Anita Brookner

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

November 5, 2007

Deeper Into ‘The Garden of Abdul Gasazi’ and Other Magical Realms: Perry Nodelman’s ‘Words About Pictures’

How do the pictures relate to the words in children’s books? Do they clarify the text? Do they complete it? Or do they do something else, such as moving the text forward?

Canadian scholar Perry Nodelman explores these and other questions in Words About Pictures: The Narrative Art of Children’s Picture Books (University of Georgia Press, $22.95, paperback), perhaps the best book in print on how pictures relate to stories in children’s books. Nodelman deals at least in passing with hundreds of well-known picture books. But he pays special attention to 14 that have helped to define the field, including Beatrix Potter’s The Tale of Peter Rabbit, Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are, Peter Spier’s Noah’s Ark, Chris Van Allsburg’s The Garden of Abdul Gasazi and Paul Heins’s Snow White, illustrated by Trina Schart Hyman.

Nodelman’s central argument – developed with skill and insight — is that it’s a mistake to view picture books like though the narrow lens of their moral, ideological or educational correctness. Rather, he says, they are a serious art form that deserves the respect we give to others.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

September 7, 2007

Chris Van Allsburg’s A-Plus Alphabet Book, ‘The Z Was Zapped’

Filed under: Children's Books — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 11:20 pm
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One of America’s greatest illustrators finds 26 kinds of drama in letters

The Z Was Zapped: The Alphabet Theatre Proudly Presents … A Play in Twenty-Six Acts. By Chris Van Allsburg. Houghton Mifflin, 56 pp., $18.95. Ages 2 and up.

By Janice Harayda

Great chefs often test their would-be assistants by asking them to make an omelet. Why? It’s harder to hide your mistakes when you’re working with just a few ingredients. And the good cooks don’t need more than a few to show what they can do.

In that sense Chris Van Allsburg is the Nobu Matsuhisa of picture books. If you want to understand why critics regard him as one of the greatest living author-illustrators, compare The Z Was Zapped with any other alphabet book at your library or bookstore.

Alphabet books typically illustrate letters with nouns, an approach that has drawbacks. One is that it can lead to clichés such as, “A is for apple.” Another is that because nouns are not “action” words as verbs are, they can result in inert — or just dull — books.

Van Allsburg avoids both problems by casting his letters as actors in a stage play in which they face mishaps illustrated by strong verbs and black-and-white drawings that have an air of mystery about them. He doesn’t tell us why “The K was quietly Kidnapped” or two gloved hands are lifting the K off the stage. This encourages children to create their own explanations for the strange goings-on. And the black-and-white drawings have the subtle but great advantage of drawing attention to the shape of letters (which is essential to learning the alphabet) instead of the color (which is irrelevant). Some alphabet books blaze with so much color that you wonder: How can children focus on the letters when there are so many distractions?

The Z Was Zapped has a structure that is no less original. Most alphabet books introduce a letter through words and pictures on a single page or spread. Van Allsburg shows a letter on one page, then makes you turn the page to learn its name and fate. This prompts children to try to guess the letter and what’s happening to it. It also fosters vocabulary-building and creativity, because at times more than one description might apply. Van Allsburg tells us that “The S was simply Soaked,” but “Splashed” would fit, too. If the F is “firmly Flattened,” children are more likely to be “fully Fascinated.”

Best line/picture: The picture for the letter B (“The B Was badly Bitten”) shows the snout of the bull terrier that is Van Allsburg’s signature and appears in each of his books.

Worst line/picture: You could argue that in “The H was partly Hidden,” the “partly” is imprecise. You can hardly see the H, so “mostly” or “largely” might have been more accurate.

Recommendation? A great gift for ages 2–4, likely also to appeal to many older children.

Published: October 1987 (hardcover), October 1998 (paperback) A review of Van Allsburg’s latest book, Probuditi! (Houghton Mifflin, $18.95) appeared on this site on Jan. 21, 2007

Furthermore: Chris Van Allsburg won Caldecott Medals from the American Library Association for Jumanji and The Polar Express and a Caldecott Honor for The Garden of Abdul Gasazi.

Janice Harayda is an award-winning critic who has been the book columnist for Glamour, book editor of The Plain Dealer and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle She also wrote The Accidental Bride (St. Martins, 1999), a comedy of Midwestern manners, and Manhattan on the Rocks (Sourcebooks, 2004), a comedy of New York manners

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

September 6, 2007

What Makes a Story Work? Quote of the Day (Chris Van Allsburg)

Filed under: Quotes of the Day — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:05 am
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Writers since Aristotle have tried to define what makes a story work. Some have argued that good stories are character-driven. Others have said that they are plot-driven. And still others have avoided both terms and contended, for example, that good fiction is “moral” – it tells a story but doesn’t “just” tell a story. It serves a higher purpose. Chris Van Allsburg made this comment in talking about his most famous picture book, The Polar Express:

“A good story uses the description of events to reveal some kind of moral or psychological premise.”

Chris Van Allsburg in The Essential Guide to Children’s Books and Their Creators (Houghton Mifflin, $17, paperback), edited by Anita Silvey.

Comment by Janice Harayda:

What makes a story work for you?

On Saturday I’ll be reviewing Van Allsburg’s underrated The Z Was Zapped, and I came across his quote while doing research for that post. If you know this immensely gifted artist only through The Polar Express, you’re missing some of his best books. Please check back this weekend then if you’d like to know more about why critics regard him as one of our greatest living author-illustrators.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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