Jane, Annie, Van Allsburg, and McDonnell:
Or, Women’s History Month, I Note Your Presence

h1 March 7th, 2011 by jules

“Once Annie was tightly packed inside, she told Fred Truesdale to seal up the barrel. As he and Billy put the lid in place, Annie said, ‘So long, boys.'”

“Jane had a stuffed toy chimpanzee named Jubilee.”
(Click to enlarge.)

March is Women’s History Month, an event I can really get behind and to which I give seven enthusiastic cheers. But not a cheerlead’y type of cheer, seeing as how I went to the library during pep rallies in high school. Oh yes, I did. NERD. I just didn’t understand spirit fingers and what those cheerleaders were actually pointing at — and pep rallies were all just a bit too…well, peppy for my tastes. I say it again: Nerd.

If blogging were, say, my full-time job, bless my soul, I’d have a fun time bringing you more books that can be used to celebrate such a wonderful event as Women’s History Month, but since it’s not, I humbly bring you two books today. These are two picture book biographies, for all intents and purposes, though I think one is technically considered fiction. At the very top of this post is an illustration from Chris Van Allsburg’s very first nonfiction title, Queen of the Falls (Houghton Mifflin, April 2011), and below that is an illustration from Patrick McDonnell’s Me…Jane (Little, Brown, April 2011). Let me say now, for the record…. Well, I like both books, but the latter, McDonnell’s title on Dr. Jane Goodall, is one of the best books you’ll see all year. I say that with confidence, even though it’s only March and there are so many more picture books, lucky for us, heading our way in 2011. We’ll get to Me…Jane in just a bit, but first off is Van Allsburg’s picture book biography of Annie Edson Taylor.

Annie Edson Taylor was the first person to make it over Niagara Falls in a barrel — and come out the other end alive, that is. She also remains, as Van Allsburg points out in a closing Author’s Note, the only woman to have gone over the falls alone.

Van Allsburg starts the story off with a nail-biter of a moment: Niagara Falls in 1901. Folks have gathered there in great anticipation. “Suddenly voices shouted, ‘There it is!’ Outstretched hands pointed to the crest of the cascading wall of water. For a fleeting moment a large barrel was visible, and then it plunged over the falls, disappearing in a liquid avalanche. Many in the crowd cried out; then all eyes were frozen on the churning water below.”

Before we find out if the person in the barrel is alive, Van Allsburg takes us back years prior to Annie Edson Taylor’s failing charm school, her efforts to find a better job, and her sudden inspiration to “find fame and fortune by doing something no one in the world had ever done before,” which is, of course, to plunge over Niagara Falls in a barrel.

“She took her drawing to a workshop where men built barrels, mostly for holding things such as pickles and beer. The foreman of the shop had never seen a barrel like the one Annie had drawn and asked what it was for.”
(Click to enlarge and see entire spread from which this illustration comes.)

“When she shared her plans to ride in the barrel over Niagara Falls, the man looked at Annie in disbelief. He handed the drawing back and informed her his shop would build no such thing. The idea was madness, he told her.
If she wanted to kill herself, she’d have to do it on her own.”

(Click to enlarge and see entire spread from which this illustration comes.)

So, I don’t want to tell you Annie’s entire story, should you want to read this yourself and let her story unfold for you. Suffice it to say that of course she ends up at the end of the falls alive, and thus begins her efforts to make money off of being the amazing “Queen of the Falls.”

“Annie, ever proud and proper, asked the men to turn away as she removed her hat and jacket, then got down on her hands and knees and backed into the open barrel.”
(Click to enlarge and see entire spread from which this illustration comes.)

“‘Oh, Lord,’ she whispered, and then she was gone.”

But things don’t quite work out as she planned and hoped, because this is a story, when it comes right down to it, of ageism. Once folks saw that the Queen of the Falls was a “little old lady,” they were “confused. Could this person in front of them, this grandma, really be the brave and fearless Mrs. Taylor who dared to ride over the waterfall? Annie told her story, but when she was done, there were no eager questions or loud appluase. Everyone seemed to find the oak barrel more interesting than the woman who had ridden inside it.” The victim of more than one swindling, double-crossing manager, she loses the spotlight (as well as her actual, custom-designed barrel when Billy Banks, her last manager, runs off with it, never to be seen again).

There is no sentimentality to Van Allsburg’s rendering of Taylor’s story. This is good. He conveys her courage and determination with a true veracity, no sopping-sweet message about following one’s dreams, which could have happened in the hands of a lesser author. (An “unglamorous daredevil” Publishers Weekly calls her, adding that the story is “unromantic and bittersweet… Van Allsburg presents the feat as born as much out of need as of courage, with Taylor portrayed as a hardheaded eccentric and an unlikely queen.”) He makes it clear, for instance, that she was quite simply out for fame and fortune. But a society that, even then, was focused on youth made that impossible for her. It’s hardly, though, as if she withered from this: She went back to Niagara Falls, built a new barrel, and displayed postcards of herself.

Okay, I did give you most of the story there. Ah well.

As noted above, this is Van Allsburg’s first nonfiction title, not one of fictional fantasies, frights, and ironies, which we tend to see from him. But, as he notes at the book’s close:

When I decided to write about Annie, I believed I was undertaking a project quite different from the fantasies and surreal tales I’d become accustomed to creating. This was not the case. There is something decidedly fantastic and not quite real about Niagara Falls, about Annie’s adventure, and about the stories that can unfold when imagination, determination, and foolhardiness combine to set humans off in pursuit of their goals.

In his art work in this title (his first one in five years, if I’m doing my math correctly), Van Allsburg—a master illustrator—plays with perspective and shadow in exciting ways, and he once again impresses with a stunning simplicity of design and texture. “The artist’s familiar warm sepia and cream tones, depth of field, and solid architectural details continue to please,” writes School Library Journal. “What is new is the wonderful freedom in his lines. The long squiggles that comprise the water sparkle and shimmer on their drop, until their distinctive paths disappear in the spray.”

Oh, how I love Patrick McDonnell’s Me…Jane. This is the story of the young girl who grew up to be Dr. Jane Goodall (complete with “A Message from Jane” at the book’s close). Jane, as you can see at the top of this post, had a stuffed toy monkey; loved to be outside; closely observed the creatures of the wild and read about them in books; kept a journal of her discoveries (to which McDonnell treats us in one spread); climbed trees; read books about Tarzan; dreamt of life in Africa; and even snuck into Grandma Nutt’s chicken coop to watch a hen lay an egg. “It was a magical world full of joy and wonder, and Jane felt very much a part of it.”

“Jane learned all that she could about the animals and plants she studied in her backyard and read about in books.”
(Click to enlarge.)

“…a life living with, and helping, all animals.”
(Click to enlarge.)

This sparsely-worded story in McDonnell’s small-cartoon-drawings style closes with her saying her prayers, falling to sleep, and waking to “her dream come true.” There, on the final spread, is a photograph of the adult Jane with a chimpanzee.

In describing the book’s illustrations, Publishers Weekly wrote, “On the left, earnest text appears on cream-colored paper embellished with delicate vintage images of trees and animals. On the right, by contrast, McDonnell’s winsome ink and watercolor drawings come across as sweetly goofy.” Sweetly goofy hadn’t exactly come to my mind, but I see that, I suppose. What comes to my mind is clean. Clean and fresh compositions with no clutter. The consistent palette (mostly tans) is enhanced by the vintage images pointed out in the PW review. The final illustration is a sketch from Goodall herself, one she had created while imagining a chimp in her bed while she herself slept up in the trees. (The book also opens with a beautifully-designed title page, featuring a photograph of the young Jane with that stuffed toy monkey of hers.)

Betsy Bird covered this title here in late February, calling it a “singular creation, one that does both its author and its subject proud” and noting what fitting subject matter someone like Goodall is for a picture biography. This one’s a thoroughly inspiring story for the youngest of readers. Don’t miss it.

* * * * * * *

QUEEN OF THE FALLS. Copyright © 2011 by Chris Van Allsburg. Published by Houghton Mifflin, Boston, Mass. All rights reserved.

ME…JANE. Copyright © 2011 by Patrick McDonnell. Published by Little, Brown and Company, New York. All rights reserved.

7 comments to “Jane, Annie, Van Allsburg, and McDonnell:
Or, Women’s History Month, I Note Your Presence”

  1. These both look great, though so different! I look forward to reading them.Thanks.

  2. Oh I love it! Me…Jane is absolutely darling! That spread of her swinging on the vines….precious! Thanks so much for this post:)

  3. Another awesome post, 7-Imp! Love McDonnell, love Van Allsburg. Can’t wait to pick up both. Thanks, as always…

  4. Happy Women’s History Month! Both these books look perfect in such different ways. The first illustration and the cover of Queen of the Falls take my breath away. Annie somehow feels to me like a timely figure, in these days when so many are freelancing, trying to come up with creative ways just to, er, stay afloat. . . I’ll definitely check both of these out. Thanks for another terrific post.

  5. […] From School Library Journal, via the Andersen Press (UK), Chris Van Allsburg (Polar Express) talks about his new book QUEEN OF THE FALLS. More CVA, as well as a little Patrick McDonnell (and Jane Goodall), courtesy of Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast. […]

  6. […] via Jackets and Sleeves, School Library Journal, Seven Impossible Things To Do Before Breakfast,  I.N.K.,  You Know, For […]

  7. […] Stephen: I have admired the work of William Joyce and Donald Crews for years. The two are very different, but I really connect with both. I’m hoping to run into Patrick McDonnell soon. I’m a huge fan of Me…Jane. […]

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