Quote of the Month

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

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Up And Around And Then Back Down

It can be seen for miles and miles in the distance, a beacon against the horizon announcing a spectacular experience in the offing.  During the day or night this spinning marvel is the next best thing to flying; giving passengers a bird's eye view of the surrounding landscape.  Your heart may be in your stomach but the visual feast is well worth the ride.

What thinker conceived this masterpiece of engineering excellence?  Mr. Ferris and His Wheel (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) written by Kathryn Gibbs Davis with illustrations by Gilbert Ford introduces readers to George Washington Gale Ferris, Jr. and his spectacular invention.  It's a story filled with monumental moments.

It was only ten months until the next World's Fair.  But everyone was still talking about the star attraction of the last World's Fair.

Certainly an American could create a showpiece for the 1893 Chicago World's Fair which would surpass the wonder of the Eiffel Tower erected in Paris, France.  George Washington Gale Ferris, Jr. saw the national contest as a chance to present an idea he had been carrying around in his mind since childhood.  His structure would be more distinctive.  His structure would move.

At first his plans were dismissed as unrealistic but George knew his wheel would work.  He would use a new metal for its construction, steel.  Not only did the fair judges wait until there was only four months until the opening date before giving permission but they refused to provide any financial assistance to Mr. Ferris.  He was not deterred but determined.

A brutal winter, frozen ground and quicksand made laying the foundation particularly tricky.  Between two steel towers a forged axle was placed, breaking a record for its size and length.  With the fair date looming in the near future, the teams worked nearly nonstop piecing together more than 100,000 parts.  Eight weeks before the fair opened it was almost completed but once the cars were attached would it function?

The elegance and size of the cars, even by today's standards, were mind-boggling.  It must have been breathtaking for George, his wife and their honored guests as they sat in #1 rising up and up.  For fifty cents customers could circle twice around taking a twenty-minute trip.  George Washington Gale Ferris, Jr. built his dream at the age of thirty-four.  One hundred twenty-one years later people still feel the thrill when reaching the top of his daring design.

Notice how author Kathryn Gibbs Davis begins by building a feeling of anticipation; like the start of world-class race.  Her narrative gains strength page after page as she describes with details, supported by research, of George's planning with his assistant, William Gronau, of his presentation to the judges, of his pursuit of funding and of his tireless work with his crews to complete the Ferris wheel.  As an extension of facts presented in the main story, Davis supplies two to three sentence paragraphs, in smaller font off to the side, focusing on specifics.  Here is an example.

Two thousand tons of steel began to turn around as the soft clanking of a large chain drove the mighty machine.

Two steam engines (an extra one in case one broke) made the wheel turn.  George had hidden them under the wooden platform where riders boarded.

Unfolded, the dust jacket (and matching book case) illustration spreads in all its nighttime splendor flap edge to flap edge.  The palette of blue, purple and golden yellow shades remains prominent throughout the entire book with accents of rose and green.  With little stretch of your imagination you get a real sense of viewing this scene from a building in Chicago.  If the window were open the newly invented light bulbs, numbering 3,000, would be sparkling in the dusk as sounds from the fair drifted inside your room.

Most of the images created by digital mixed media with ink and watercolor by Gilbert Ford span two pages.  Prior to the title illustration, readers are treated to a single visual of a boy fishing in a pond next to a mill with its wheel gently turning surrounded by a forest.  Tucked into the pond is a quote from the American architect and construction chief of the 1893 World's Fair, Daniel H. Burnham.

The buildings, clothing, daily activities and room interiors carefully reflect the appropriate time period in all of Ford's artwork for this title.  Each scene, with or without people, is alive, animated.  One of my favorite pictures is a panoramic view of the park as the sun is setting.  The lights are beginning to shine in the darkening buildings and on the Ferris wheel.  Leaves on the trees are turning golden and red.  Birds in flight are silhouetted against a rosy red sky with a few stars starting to shine.  You can feel a chill in the air.

The thing about really good nonfiction is it makes you notice everything differently.  After reading Mr. Ferris and His Wheel written by Kathryn Gibbs Davis with illustrations by Gilbert Ford readers will never look at a Ferris wheel the same way again.  They will remember its construction in the context of a World's Fair, which they may not have even known about previously.  They will remember the passion and persistence of Ferris, silently respecting his achievements.  Maybe they will want to know, as I did, how he lived the remainder of his life.  At the close of this title, quote sources, a selected bibliography and websites are listed.

For further information about Kathryn Gibbs Davis and Gilbert Ford please follow the links embedded in their names, taking you to their official websites.  Gilbert Ford has an excellent post on his blog about the process for creating his artwork.

Here is a little extra fun and a tribute to George Ferris courtesy of Google.

Each week dedicating a post to nonfiction has been one of the most rewarding aspects of this year.  I am truly thankful to Alyson Beecher host of Kid Lit Frenzy for her 2014 Nonfiction Picture Book Challenge.  Stop by her site to read the recommended nonfiction selections by other bloggers.


  1. What a gorgeously-illustrated picturebook biography. I just checked our online library database and am very sad that we don't have a copy of this one yet. Will definitely pin this in my Pinterest board on PBBs. :)

    1. It is truly lovely Myra. I hope your library is able to get a copy soon. These nonfiction picture books amaze me. They are exceedingly good.