“What?! You can’t stop reading there!” bellowed one of my second graders as I shut our read-aloud book and left the main character, Annie Taylor, sealed in a barrel and about to reach the precipice of Niagara Falls.
I smiled at his uncontainable outburst and began soliciting predictions about whether Annie would survive her madcap freefall or meet what seemed to be imminent doom. As a brand new teacher, this was the breakthrough for which I had been waiting — the first book that would enrapture my students and captivate their imaginations long after we finished reading it.
So, it seems fitting that in my first post in this blog about children’s literature, I should pay homage to this first, miraculous book — Chris Van Allsburg’s Queen of the Falls.
Upon first glance, it was not a book that I imagined would engage any 7- or 8-year old. It tells of a little-known, feisty woman, features immensely detailed — but black and white — illustrations, and is so long that I had to break it into two separate read-aloud sessions. Queen of the Falls has an old-fashioned feel to it, which left me uncertain about how — or if — it would resonate with my very modern students.
Because the story champions a rather non-stereotypical heroine, Queen of the Falls found a place in my inaugural unit about biographies, which I hoped would leave my students feeling inspired by remarkable individuals and realizing that they, too, could become (and just maybe, already were) someone important.
I spent ages compiling my list of books for the unit and made a point to feature a wide diversity of figures — something I consider essential in a school and community where my students rarely see someone who does not look just like them. Because I work in rural Maine, books have served as one of the primary avenues through which I have tried to expand my students’ awareness of the world around them.
And so entered Queen of the Falls, in our third week of school. We’d already learned about Ruby Bridges, Michael Jordan, Rosa Parks, and John Coltrane, who had been interesting enough, but who, perhaps, seemed too extraordinary to my students. But gutsy Annie Taylor, she swept them right up with her on her barrel ride. My students sat more still and more silent than I had ever seen them, they laughed at the right parts (for once), and had so many (on-topic) questions. And they whined when I stopped reading right at the cliffhanger, Is there a sweeter sound for a literacy-loving classroom teacher to hear?
But best of all, it led my students to the realization that biographies do not always have to be about tremendously famous people doing tremendously noble things, but can actually be about spunky women who do things that seem absolutely ludicrous — not unlike many of the ideas my second-graders dream up on a daily basis.