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 www.twitter.com/janiceharayda or by clicking on the “Follow” button in the right sidebar on this site.

© 2011 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

April 12, 2009

Remembering FDR’s Death on April 12, 1945 (Quote of the Day / Harry Truman on the Death of FDR via Max Hastings)

Filed under: Quotes of the Day — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 10:55 am
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Just as baby boomers remember where they were on when they heard that John F. Kennedy had been shot, their parents know where they were on April 12, 1945, when they learned that Franklin D. Roosevelt had died. How did Harry Truman react to his predecessor’s death? Max Hastings answers in his  Retribution: The Battle for Japan, 1944–45 (Knopf, $35):

“Harry Truman has come to be regarded as one of America’s outstanding national leaders of the twentieth century. In the spring of 1945, however, this decent, simple, impulsive man was all but overwhelmed by the burden of office thrust upon him by Roosevelt’s death on 12 April. ‘I felt like the moon, the stars and all the planets had fallen on me,’ he told reporters on the afternoon that he was sworn in. ‘Boys, if you ever pray, pray for me now.’ One journalist said: ‘Good luck, Mr. President.’ Truman said: ‘I wish you didn’t have to call me that.’”

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
http://www.janiceharayda.com

February 18, 2008

Writing Levels of the U.S. Presidents — Can You Write at a Higher Level Than George W. Bush? — Here’s How to Find Out (Encore Presentation)

Filed under: Uncategorized — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 2:02 am
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Who wrote at a higher level, Ronald Reagan or Abraham Lincoln? Check the results of a survey that calculated their grade levels using the readability statistics on Microsoft Word in this special encore presentation of last year’s Presidents’ Day post

Need a reason to feel good about the direction our country is taking on Presidents’ Day? Try this: George W. Bush can write at a higher level than Thomas Jefferson.

Not long ago, I found that novelist Mitch Albom writes at a third-grade level when I typed part of For One More Day into my computer, then ran the Microsoft Word spell-checker www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2006/11/16/. When you do this, you see the Flesch-Kincaid grade level at the bottom of the column of numbers that appears on your screen. (If you don’t see the grade level, search Microsoft Word Help for “Readability Statistics,” then select “Display Readability Statistics,” which will tell you how to make them appear.)

So I wondered: Could any of our presidents write at a higher level than a No. 1 best-selling novelist? I used Microsoft Word to calculate the reading levels of the presidents’ books, if these were easily available, and their best-known speeches if not. Here are the results:

John F. Kennedy, Profiles in Courage Grade 12
Jimmy Carter, Palestine: Peace, Not Apartheid Grade 12
Franklin D. Roosevelt, “Four Freedoms” Speech Grade 11.2
Ronald Reagan, An American Life Grade 11.1
Dwight Eisenhower, Crusade in Europe Grade 11.1
Abraham Lincoln, Gettysburg Address Grade 10.9
George W. Bush, A Charge to Keep Grade 10.8
Bill Clinton, My Life Grade 8.2
Gerald Ford, A Time to Heal Grade 8.1
Lyndon B. Johnson “Why Are We in Vietnam?” Speech Grade 7.3
Thomas Jefferson, Letter to Abigail Adams,
July 1, 1787 Grade 5.3

I entered 305 words from each book, beginning on page 24, because the first chapter of a book often doesn’t represent the whole. A typical book chapter has about 20 pages, so I started on page 24. And because a paragraph or two may not represent the whole, either, I entered 305 words, or more than a page, which usually has about 250–300 words. When I used a speech, I entered the whole speech.

This survey showed that George Bush wrote in A Charge to Keep – what, you’ve forgotten it? — at a higher level than Thomas Jefferson did in a letter to Abigail Adams, wife of John Adams. Bush also wrote at higher level than Bill Clinton did in My Life and LBJ did in his “Why Are We in Vietnam?” speech at Johns Hopkins University. But Jefferson comes out ahead if you give him credit for writing the Declaration if Independence single-handledly. It’s written at the level of Grade 12.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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