Award-winning children's book creator Chris Van Allsburg is a master of fantasy and the surreal, whether conjuring up a mysterious train to the North Pole for "The Polar Express" or a board game erupting with a live lion and monkeys in "Jumanji."
For his latest picture book -- his first foray into nonfiction -- he has turned to the fantastic but true story of Annie Edson Taylor, the Michigan teacher who was the first person to go over the falls in a barrel, on Oct. 24, 1901, her 63rd birthday.
Van Allsburg's dramatic illustrations and lively text in "Queen of the Falls" (Houghton Mifflin Books for Children, $18.99) bring home just how strange and unlikely Taylor's story was.
In a telephone interview from his home in Providence, R.I., Van Allsburg joked that his past stories "required not much more than my imagination and disturbed psychology to invent them, but this is a story which is not a fantasy, but it was certainly fantastic."
He first came across Taylor's story in the early 1970s amid stacks of old magazines in the lunchroom at a summer job. Sports Illustrated had done an article about falls daredevils.
"The thing that really struck me was the first person to go over the falls was this 62-year-old woman. It seems like such an extraordinary and eccentric event. It seemed odd to me that I hadn't even heard about it until I was in my early 20s," he said.
Thirty years and more than a dozen picture books later, as he was casting about for a different kind of story to tell, "out of the recesses of memory, emerged Annie Taylor."
Taylor at 62 -- which in 1901 was "more like 75," Van Allsburg points out -- was desperate, no longer able to attract students to her charm school in Bay City, Mich. "She was looking for a way to secure her financial future. Most women at 62, would look for a job cleaning someone's home or some domestic job, but Annie Taylor was in some ways perhaps a little too proud for that sort of thing. She decided she needed to do some grand act that would solve her problems instantly. She would have a barrel designed to her specifications and go over Niagara Falls."
The sturdy oak barrel had iron bands wrapped around it, metal handholds and was packed with cushions. And Taylor, though bruised and battered, lived to tell the tale.
Van Allsburg's illustrations, in sepia tones, are stunning, starting with the one on the cover -- the barrel stopped in time at the start of its descent over the mighty Horseshoe Falls.
Open the book, and the first page depicts a 17-story building resting against the falls, underscoring how tall the waterfall is. The story begins: "Imagine being as small as a flea, standing on a sidewalk next to an open fire hydrant. This is how visitors to the waterfalls at Niagara feel."
Van Allsburg says he used white crayon on gray paper to better depict "the look of falling water which breaks into a kind of a helter-skelter sort of ripple pattern as it goes over the lip of the falls." There are drawings of Annie at her failing charm school, with one lone pupil; Annie eying a board at the barrel-maker's, Annie modestly backing into the barrel while her helpers turn their backs, a smiling Annie bravely waving from inside the barrel, a drawing Van Allsburg says is his favorite.
"It has a kind of poignance to it. She's saying goodbye to fellows who are sealing her barrel, but it may as well be her coffin. This is consistent with the descriptions of her demeanor on the day that she did this, that she didn't betray any feelings of terror."
He found his model for Taylor at a parent-teacher conference with his daughter's algebra teacher. "I was looking for someone who had an appearance and a bearing that seemed more 19th century than 20th century." The teacher was "gung-ho" to model, he said, even though "it would require difficult poses and a willingness to wear a corset."
>Manager bails out
Fans will no doubt look for the trademark bull terrier who shows up in every book. "I never thought it would be a big deal, but I have been in bookstores signing a new publication and I will see kids grab a book and riffle through it without reading it. Their first goal is to find Fritz."
Van Allsburg confesses that he almost gave up on the book when he found that Taylor's "hopes and expectations for her post-falls trip did not pan out."
While newspapers were filled with dramatic descriptions of her barrel ride (her manager told reporters she was 42), her dreams of striking it rich on the lecture circuit did not pan out. "She was greeted by audiences who could not believe this 62-year-old was actually the heroic adventuress who had gone over the falls," he said. Taylor was abandoned by her manager, who stole her barrel and hired a younger woman to impersonate her. She died a pauper in the Niagara County Infirmary in 1921.
Not a happy ending for a children's book. Van Allsburg worried about a story for children in which "you establish a sympathetic protagonist, you create for them some extraordinary challenge, it doesn't seem possible they could succeed, yet they do. The arc of the story finds this person triumphant. They're rewarded. In Annie's case, that's not the way the story works."
But then he found his ending, in a 1911 newspaper interview. Ten years after surviving her plunge over the falls, Taylor told a reporter for the Niagara Falls Journal: "I look back upon that trip as the greatest feat ever performed in the world, and I am content when I can say I did it."
Van Allsburg took some liberties with the interview, paraphrasing it and moving it from the parlor of a home on First Street to the edge of the falls.
But the lesson remains. "Sometimes the only reward for undertaking some mighty challenges you might encounter in your life is the simple, private reward of knowing that you did something that no one else was able to do," he said.
Chris Van Allsburg will visit Western New York in June as part of his book tour for "Queen of the Falls."
Queen of the Falls
By Chris Van Allsburg