Queen of the Falls

by Chris Van Allsburg

Houghton Mifflin, 2010

40 pages

Did you ever wonder who first had the crazy idea to go over Niagara Falls in a barrel? That honor belongs to a 62 (yes, 62)-year-old woman named Annie Edson Taylor, who dreamed up the stunt as a get-rick-quick scheme in 1901. Chris Van Allsburg’s Queen of the Falls tells her story.

Taylor was a widow and charm-school teacher who found herself retiring earlier than expected (and on very limited savings) due to a lack of students. Desperate to avoid the poorhouse, Annie remembered a girlhood trip to Niagara Falls and figured that going over the falls in a barrel would be a sure ticket to fame and fortune.

And the stunt seemed to be a success, at least at first. Annie suffered only minor injuries and  garnered tremendous publicity. She was sure that lucrative lecture and fair tours would follow.

Unfortunately, however, people who came to her appearances weren’t expecting a 62-year-old grandma. Underwhelmed, her audiences sat mutely, applauded weakly, even walked out on her. Two managers in succession tried to steal Annie’s famous barrel; the second one also tried to pass off a younger, prettier woman as “Queen of the Falls.”

Her tours a failure, Annie ended up supporting herself by selling postcards and pamphlets commemorating her stunt. She managed to avoid the poorhouse, but barely.

So you might be asking yourself: How in the world is this book inspiring? Sure, Annie was spunky and brave, but her grand plans fell flat. Ultimately, people pretty much forgot about her.

True–but about 10 years after Annie’s trip over the falls, when a reporter asked how she felt about the outcome of her project, she proudly pointed out that no one had ever had the courage to get closer to the falls than she had.*  People would agree, she told him, that going over the falls in a barrel was a great feat.

And she added, “I am content when I say, ‘I am the one who did it.’ ”

That is why this book is inspiring. Not because Annie succeeded–at least, not in the conventional sense–but because she found a way to be at peace.

Life is not full of successes. Your daughter or granddaughter, student or niece or friend, will encounter failure. She’ll offer friendship to another child, only to be rejected. She’ll stay up until the wee hours, doing her best work on a term paper, only to get a C. She’ll log hours upon hours in the batting cage, only to strike out. She’ll pour her heart and soul into her dream job, only to get laid off.

Your task is to equip her to process those failures without giving up on life (or friendships, school, sports, or career). Inspired girls don’t just go out into the world and make successes; they also face failure head-on and find a way to work around or through it.

Male managers and the lecture circuit were flop for Annie. So she decided to look after herself and sell postcards. She didn’t get rich as she had hoped, but she didn’t let that make her bitter and unhappy. Instead, she chose to be satisfied with her accomplishment and content with her life.

Van Allsburg’s story beautifully communicates that state of mind, and his trademark black-and-white drawings capture all the adventure, humor, and determination of Annie’s story. Sit down and read Queen of the Falls with a little girl you know. You’ll be equipping her for later in life so that, when failure comes her way, she won’t feel defeated. She’ll feel inspired.

*Other people have since successfully surfed Niagara Falls, but Annie remains the only woman to have done it alone.

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