King of the Tightrope: When the Great Blondin Ruled Niagara
For French funambulist, Jean-François Gravelet, aka The Great Blondin, routine performances on his tightrope became too dull, too boring, too ordinaire. Fame wasn’t enough to satisfy his artistic yearnings. He imagined dramatic and exciting feats that nobody had ever attempted. It took a fateful trip to Niagara Falls in 1858 to spark his most creative idea—to perform on a tightrope over the raging Niagara River. With the help of STEAM skills, The Great Blondin engineered his rope and proved that what can be imagined can be accomplished. Magnifique!
Many thanks to Elizabeth Bird @ Fuse #8 Productions and School Library Journal for hosting the official cover reveal on Blondin’s 195th birthday, February 28th, 2019. Click here.
Scroll down for Select Sources, Quotation Sources, Pronunciation guide, photos, and more below
Extra Special Testimonial Blurbs:
“Growing up as a high wire walker, I frequently heard stories about Blondin’s feats of audacity. I am pleased that through this book Blondin’s legacy will live on, not only in the circus community but within the general public, young and old alike.”
—Alessandro Wallenda, The Flying Wallendas
“Blondin constantly endeavored to overcome his own mental and physical limits. He is exemplary in this respect and deserves great admiration. That is why Donna and I have dedicated so many years of our lives in writing his story. Bravo l’artiste!”
—Jean-Louis Brenac, great-great-grandson of The Great Blondin
Click here for the Author’s Note, Afterword, and photos of Blondin
Click here to listen to the NPR episode in which adult biographer David S. Reynolds reveals how The Great Blondin’s Niagara feats were used as a metaphor for Abraham Lincoln’s human-rights-focused presidential challenges.
Interviews & Blog Posts about Writing King of the Tightrope:
ATTENTION EDUCATORS—Read my post for Patricia Newman’s blog, LitLinks, in which I share STEM and Language Arts connections for classroom use.
Read about how I figured out Blondin’s engineering process through historical clues and modern technology, beginning with the rope.
Read my interview with Tom Bober for the American Association of School Library’s (AASL) Knowledge Quest about using primary and secondary sources in my research for this book.
Read my interview on Kirby Larson’s blog, Friend Friday, about how a competing book about the Great Blondin published while mine was going to contract, and about how having to re-focusing my story made it even better.
Purdue University’s INSPIRE Research Institute for Pre-College Engineering includes King of the Tightrope in their gift guide.
Reviews and Accolades:
NEW! King of the Tightrope was a finalist for the Writers’ League of Texas Picture Book Award.
Bookroo Review Excerpt: “Masterful writing and artistic storytelling combine to entertain and inspire readers in this larger-than-life tale of one tightrope walker’s triumph over the impossible.”
Bank Street College of Education has named King of the Tightrope in their Best Children’s Books of the Year list, 2020 Edition.
Kirkus (June 25, 2019) excerpt: energy, tactics, skill, engineering, unflinching optimism, and sheer grit of Blondin’s preparations to cross Niagara as well as the skepticism and wonder of all who witnessed his legendary endeavor. Bold, colorful watercolor-and-gouache illustrations capture Blondin’s high-wire escapades… Theatrical lighting, stunning perspectives, and arresting close-ups convey the intensity of Blondin’s feats… Awesome, astounding, death-defying.”
Booklist (June 12, 2019 issue) excerpt: “The lifelike gouache-and-watercolor illustrations are rich with the drama and tension of Blondin’s performances… Bowman conjures the sheer magnitude of his Niagara endeavor as she describes the calculations, equipment, and manpower needed to simply get Blondin’s rope from one shore to the other. And like the spectators there on June 30, 1859, readers will hold their breath as the Frenchman makes his legendary walk.” —Booklist (link to full review to follow on June 12)
School Library Journal (Nov. ’19 issue): “Bowman makes this longer text accessible to a wide range of readers. Gustavson’s gouache and watercolor images transport readers into Blondin’s world…. This well-researched, riveting biography will inspire readers.”
The Ladybug Reads blog—Excerpt: “I really enjoyed this one, and I would definitely recommend it to anyone looking for an interesting picture-book biography.”
The Bookroo review: “Masterful writing and artistic storytelling combine to entertain and inspire readers in this larger-than-life tale of one tightrope-walker’s triumph over the impossible.”
* Hands-on activities with STEMS connections. Here’s one to get you started—make your own balancing tightrope walker as shared by The Experimentals.
Photo credit to Wikimedia Commons—public domain.
CLICK ON THE FRENCH TERMS USED IN THE BOOK FOR AUDIO PRONUNCIATIONS:
French words are sprinkled through the book and used in ways that make the context clear without a French dictionary. Below is a list of those words in the order of their appearance, along with links to Google’s audio pronunciations.
Fléchis—inflect or bend
Ouverts—open or wide
Mesdames et Messieurs—ladies and gentlemen
Très bon— very good
Oui, s’il vous plait!— yes please
Merveilleux— wonderful or marvelous
Tout de suite—right away
Voilà— in this context, it means done or there it is
Le milieu— the middle
La fin— the end
Photos top row:
The approximate spot of Blondin’s rope from the New York side of the river
My visit to Blondin’s grave in Kensal Green Cemetery in London
A lucky shot of the cover with a rainbow mist
Photos bottom row:
Researching materials at the Niagara Falls, N.Y. Public Library
Some of the rope used in my research
A tribute to The Great Blondin over the street in front of Tussaud’s Wax Museum—Canada side
Imagining Blondin’s original plan to stretch his rope between Terrapin Point (N.Y.) and Table Rock
“To cross those roaring waters became the ambition of my life.” Berton, Pierre. Niagara: A History of the Falls, Excelsior Editions (State University of New York), 1992. Pg 124.
“All this was done with the agility of a squirrel and in no apparent fear.” The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, June 28, 1859.
“There be one American Falls and one Canada Falls. When Blondin falls, there be one French Falls.” Daily Gazette, July 7, 1859.
“Arrangements (for his funeral) are actively going on.” Daily Milwaukee News, June 24, 1859.
“He went out on the small rope until he came to the large one.” The New Era, August 7, 1858.
“Gentlemen, anyone what please to cross, I carry him on my back.” New York Tribune, July 1, 1859.
“Leave us a lock of your hair to remember you by.”
“marched on at a lively pace, his toes hardly appearing to touch the rope.” Review, March 9, 2002.
“My frens, I have got safely over. I hope you will remember me.” Buffalo Daily Republic, July 1, 1859.
“You are as great as the Falls themselves!” Toronto Globe, July 4, 1860.
“You can see that I am even great.” Toronto Globe, July 4, 1859.
”The Great Feat has been Successfully Performed.” Daily Gazette, July 1, 1859.
“It is useless: you cannot describe Blondin, any more than you can describe Niagara; both are stupendous and baffling.” National Magazine, 1861.
“In utter amazement we inquire, what will Blondin do next?” The Daily Gazette, July 4, 1859.
SELECT SOURCES (Click on highlighted links to read a few of the primary sources):
“A Chat with Blondin.” New York Tribune, August 12, 1888, page six.
“An Exciting Scene. M. Blondin’s Feat at Niagara Falls.” New York Times, July 4, 1859.
Berton, Pierre. Niagara: A History of the Falls. New York: State University of New York Press, 1992.
Brenac, Jean-Louis. (great-great-grandson of Blondin, France), various email interview communications. 2016, 2017, 2018
Brenac, Jean-Louis. Blondin: The Hero of Niagara, Volume One. Unpublished, undated manuscript. Accessed 2016-2018. Electronic.
“M. Blondin’s Tight-Rope Feat.” New York Daily Tribune, July 1, 1859.
“M. Blondin Crosses the Niagara River on a Tight Rope.” Buffalo Daily Republic, July 1, 1859.
“Mons. Blondin—The Rope Walker—Daring Feat of Walking Down one of the Guys to the Suspension Bridge.” The Buffalo Daily Republic, June 4, 1859.
“Mons. Blondin’s Great Feat.” Buffalo Courier, July 1, 1859.
Strand, Ginger. Inventing Niagara: Beauty, Power, and Lies. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2008.
“The Cable Stretched—Mons. Blondin Astonishes the Spectators with a Daring Feat.” Buffalo Daily Republic. June 24, 1859.
“The Feat at Niagara: Tight Rope Dancer Walking Across Niagara Falls on a Cord.” New York Herald, July 3, 1859, page two.
“The Great Feat at Niagara.” Evening Star (Washington, DC), July 6, 1859.
“The Prince of Wales in Canada and the United States.” London: Bradbury & Evans, 1861 page 264-267. Accessed via Library of Congress. (In 1860, the Prince met Blondin during his Canadian and American tour and witnessed Blondin carrying a man on his back and then walking on stilts over the Niagara River. Read the account.)
“Walking on a Tight Rope Over the Niagara River.” The Gazette (Montreal, CA), July 14, 1859.
“Walking on a Tight Rope Over the Niagara River.” New Era, July 8, 1859.