Quote of the Month

When love and skill work together, expect a miracle. John Ruskin

Thursday, May 5, 2016

Balance And Bravery

Every individual has their limits.  Looking over the edge of a balcony to the floor below is plenty challenging for some.  For others walking along the narrow ledge of a mountain path is like skipping down a neighborhood street.  For them the higher they can go the greater the challenge, the better the view.

America's oldest state park, Niagara Falls State Park, is located in New York. In its entirety Niagara Falls stretches from the borders of Ontario, Canada to New York State.  It is actually composed of three falls, the American Falls, the Bridal Veil Falls and the Horseshoe Falls.  One man over the course of a single year found a place in history books by traversing the divide.  Crossing Niagara: The Death Defying Tightrope Adventures of the Great Blondin (Candlewick Press, April 12, 2016) written and illustrated by Matt Tavares is his story.

When Jean Francois Gravelet was just five years old, he gave his first public performance as a tightrope walker.  People were amazed. 

He grew to be called the Great Blondin for his feats around the world.  Visiting Niagara Falls with circus entertainers gave him an idea, a challenging new opportunity.  He was going to walk across the span of the falls from the United States to Canada on a tightrope.  Of course, everyone thought this would result in certain death for Blondin.

Determined to accomplish this feat, Blondin sought and secured supporters and a location.  Three inches in width, more than eleven hundred feet in length and at least one hundred sixty feet in the air, the rope and other ropes keeping it steady were personally attended to by Blondin.  On June 30, 1859 with crowds lining both sides of the Niagara River as the day drew closer to evening, Blondin appeared.  He not only crossed once but twice and stopped to amaze the people with additional astounding performances.

As the events of the day wound down, Blondin issued a promise to those gathered around him.  Everything he said he would do, he did.  He surpassed every expectation.  One final test needed to be completed.  He wanted to carry someone on his back as he walked from one side to the other side.

On the day this was to be done, he called out a name.  A surprised but familiar face looked back at Blondin.  The duo achieved something no one else had ever done.  That was the way the Great Blondin lived, as a man of "firsts".

In the telling of Jean Francois Gravelet's life Matt Tavares centers on his single greatest exploit.  Once Blondin got the idea to cross Niagara Falls Tavares spins the tale like a thriller building on the excitement of the event and each subsequent act.  We are never sure of the outcome until we turn a page or complete a passage.  This pacing technique is superbly executed.

Specific details in the narrative confirm Tavares' research.  Very quickly we become personally attached to this man as his actions reveal his particular traits.  We marvel and cheer as if we are bystanders at every one of his walks across the mighty natural wonder.  Here is a sample passage.

The crowd fell silent, but Blondin was not afraid.  He had practiced all his life for this.  One step at a time, he walked.  The rope felt as wide as a bridge.
A quarter of the way across, Blondin stopped.  The crowd held its breath.  Perhaps something had gone wrong!

Magnificent is a word which comes to mind when you open the matching dust jacket and book case painted by Matt Tavares.  The grandeur of the falls spreads across the left to the right, back to front.  To give readers an accurate perspective of the size of the expanse it's as if we are passengers on the boat looking upward at Blondin as he walks along the rope.  Tavares includes a quote from the Troy Daily Times, June 30, 1859 on the back.  The same hue of rich, deep red as the title text is used to cover the opening and closing endpapers.

On the initial and more formal title pages using muted tones Tavares gives us a closer look at the falls.  You can almost feel the mist and hear the roar of the water.  In a series of single page visuals, spectacular two-page pictures, smaller oval insets, three vertical panels and a stunning four-page fold out, the pictorial story is portrayed.

Historically accurate elements in place, architecture and attire, help us to step back in time, from Blondin's first practiced performance as a youth to the final crossing at Niagara Falls.  Rendered in gouache, watercolor and pencil the fine lines, sweeping, smooth and delicate brush strokes in the illustrations bring each scene to life.  All the pictured people are fully animated.  When Tavares brings us close to an instant we are there.

There are numerous illustrations I would call favorites but the point of view shown in one is breathtaking.  (As a person who prefers to have my feet firmly planted on terra firma, this almost makes me dizzy.) We are looking slightly above Blondin carrying his pole in one hand as he stands on the rope.  In the other hand he is holding up a bottle.  He has just claimed this bottle by bringing it up on a length of twine from the Maid of the Mist shown far below.

Crossing Niagara: The Death-Defying Tightrope Adventures of the Great Blondin written and illustrated by Matt Tavares is a standout work of nonfiction for the captivating text and impressive images.  Matt Tavares presents persons of note in a unique light giving readers a glimpse into distinctive qualities of their lives.  I am deeply grateful for this kind of skilled presentation of the past. Tavares includes a selected bibliography on the final page.

To learn more about Matt Tavares and his other work please follow the links attached to his name to access his website and his blog.  On his blog you can read more specifics about the process for this title. Here is a link to an author-illustrator note. (It is the same as the one at the end of the book.)  At the publisher's website you can view a single interior illustration.  Here is a teacher's guide.

Please be sure to visit Kid Lit Frenzy hosted by educator Alyson Beecher to view the books selected by other bloggers participating in the 2016 Nonfiction Picture Book Challenge this week.

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