Author’s Note & Afterword for King of the Tightrope

The back matter for King of the Tightrope is fabulously designed by the smart folks at Peachtree Publishing, but there’s more to the story than fit the limited pages available. In the Author’s Note and Afterword below, you’ll learn a bit more about the uncovered history of Jean Francois Gravelet, The Great Blondin. Watch for other posts about the specific STEAM connections.

Author’s Note:

One night in 2010, I was making dinner while a television special about the history of Niagara Falls kept me company. I remained at my task until the program narrator mentioned that a man named Jean-François Gravelet, aka The Great Blondin, performed on a tightrope over the Niagara River in 1859. The Blondin segment lasted one or two minutes—long enough to grab me. I had to learn more.

Research involved standing on ropes

My pursuit of Blondin’s story, especially his step-by-step process at Niagara, proved challenging, as historical research usually is. I bought manila ropes so that I could experience them under my feet. To get into the head of a tightrope walker, I read and watched interviews with modern funambulists like Philippe Petit (the man who tightroped between the World Trade Centers) and The Flying Wallendas. I dug into the past through U.S. and Canadian newspaper articles and eye-witness accounts of Blondin’s performances. Unfortunately, those sources contained conflicting, misleading, and missing details. When I located the first biography about Blondin, published in 1862, I thought I had struck gold.

This biography became the central source from which all later biographical information about Blondin was drawn. Unfortunately, as I later discovered, the biography was partly fictionalized, and those fictional elements were perpetuated for almost 160 years.

Researching at the Niagara Falls Public Library

To distill the binders full of information that I had collected down to the most credible sources about how Blondin engineered his rope, and to fill in the missing pieces, I first turned to my eldest son Justin, who had recently earned an engineering degree. Documented reports and photographs in hand, we brainstormed possibilities and logical assumptions, while he sketched and employed physics calculations that went over my head. Though Blondin relied mostly on his intuitive knowledge of rope and rigging to determine how he would stretch his rope across the Niagara Gorge, to deconstruct the process, a century and a half later, required an engineer’s thought process. Actually, it required the logic of two engineers.

I was fortunate to connect with Blondin’s Great-Great-Grandson in France. As luck would have it, Jean-Louis is a fluent English speaker, a brilliant retired engineer, AND the author of a well-researched, not-yet-published French biography about Blondin, which he kindly shared with me. Eureka! With his help and expertise, the missing pieces of Blondin’s life and his Niagara rope process slowly fell into place. Jean-Louis’ input, support, and encouragement made this book infinitely better. Now, I am pleased to help him correct the historical record about his ancestor.

Process aside, what’s most notable about The Great Blondin is what his remarkable feats teach us about imagination, determination, and the will to succeed.

Afterword:

Despite the perpetuated inaccuracies about Jean-François Gravelet, he was born into an acrobatic family in 1824. It is said that he made his first public appearance at fifteen months old when his father pushed him in a wheelbarrow on a tightrope at the Coronation of France’s Charles, X. At the age of four, Jean-François climbed a slant rope toward his older sister who was experiencing troubles on the rope. The public took notice. At age eight, Jean-François performed for the King of Sardinia, and continued to perform with his family throughout France and beyond.

To ensure safety during any rope-walking endeavor, Jean-François learned how to properly rig and attach his own ropes, and he learned how to choose the size of ropes that would hold up at different heights, distances, and conditions. Though his older sister Pauline and younger brother Louis were also performers and rope walkers, Jean-François was destined to become the most famous rope-walker in the world. An interview with Blondin, published thirty years after the Niagara feats, claimed that Blondin had stood on his head so often on a rope that a ridge had formed in his skull.

As a young man, Jean-François married a French acrobat named Rosalie with whom he had four children, though two of the children did not survive.

In 1851, he said goodbye to his family and boarded the Germania to sail across the Atlantic for a two-year American performance tour with the Gabriel Ravel troupe. Either because the name Gravelet sounded too similar to Ravel, or because the men worried that American audiences would not be able to pronounce the name Gravelet, blonde-haired, blue-eyed Jean-François took the name Blondin—The Great Blondin. He could not have anticipated that his two-year tour would turn into ten years, beginning with Niblo’s Garden in New York. Sadly, Blondin never saw his French family again.

Blondin, remarkably strong at only 5’6” tall and about 145 pounds, performed on his Niagara rope at least seventeen times during the summers of 1859 and 1860. In 1860, he moved his rope to the opposite side of the Railroad Suspension Bridge, directly over the deadly whirlpool rapids. Both years, besides acrobatics on the rope, he performed increasingly difficult and dangerous stunts, including carrying a cookstove and preparing an omelette, carrying a table and chair to enjoy a glass of bubbly, and carrying his manager on his back. He walked across the Niagara rope on stilts. He balanced on a chair (that plunged into the river), he performed at night with Bengal lights attached to his pole (they fell into the river, forcing him to walk in darkness above the rapids), and he walked with his feet in peach baskets and his arms and legs in chains. In September of 1860, the Prince of Wales watched in awe but refused Blondin’s offer to carry him across the gorge on his back.

Amateur rope walkers tried to compete with Blondin for attention and money, but none compared to the elegance, strength, and expertise of The Great Blondin.

While in the United States, Blondin married a young performer named Charlotte Sophia Lawrence in Boston, with whom he had five children. In 1861, shortly after the Confederate attack on Fort Sumter, which sparked the Civil War, Blondin and his family boarded The Bremen and sailed to England in time for his contracted performances at London’s Crystal Palace, which is where his use of a bicycle on the rope was first documented. Blondin purchased a home in Ealing, England, and named it Niagara Villa.

Blondin performed on the tightrope for the rest of his life, eventually claiming that performing on a bicycle on the rope was his most dangerous feat, while performing on a balanced chair was the most difficult. He continued to challenge himself with feats of ever-increasing danger, like performing between the masts of a sailing ship, pushing a live lion, or his children, and sometimes trundling fireworks (which once exploded while he was on the rope). Though he chose a lifetime of dangerous stunts as a career, Jean Francois never allowed a safety net, saying “the danger is half the fun.”  For his extraordinary career, he was presented with multiple gold medals and awards, including a Spanish knighthood.

What Do You Do When Your Book is Scooped?

I was honored to be featured on author Kirby Larson’s Friend Friday blog about how I was scooped (or pre-empted) on several books. Click here or scroll down to read about how choosing a new focus made King of the Tightrope: When the Great Blondin Ruled Niagara a much better book. For a chance to win a copy of King of the Tightrope, click on the Rafflecopter link on Kirby’s site here.

Friend Friday

Nobody warned me that falling in love with an idea worth writing about is risky. Nobody warned me that I could spend years researching and writing a book only to be scooped by another writer, as if they snuck into my headspace via Harry Potter’s pensieve. The reality is that the ideas swirling around us can be manifested by many writers within a short time. Once scooped, a writer has two choices: Abandon their project or commit to differentiating it.

I’ve been scooped many times. Some ideas simply didn’t have a strong enough hold to embolden me through the challenges, so they were set aside. For others, I’ve been willing to go to the proverbial mat with my muse. Such was the case when a competing picture book about Dr. William Key and Beautiful Jim Key hit shelves, years into my work on what would become Step Right Up: How Doc and Jim Key Taught the World About Kindness (Lee and Low, 2016). You couldn’t pry my heart and hands away from that story, so I did the work to make my book different. Deeper. Better than it was originally. Thank goodness!

Most recently, a fabulous (darn it!) picture book biography about Jean-Francois Gravelet, The Great Blondin, hit shelves in 2016, just as my now-soon-to-be-released book, King of the Tightrope: When the Great Blondin Ruled Niagara (Peachtree, October 2019), was going to contract. Cosmic coincidences happen, both in timing and similar story approaches. After my wee meltdown, my editor and I quickly decided that the best remedy was a new focus for my narrative.

The Great Blondin on his rope above the Niagara River

The goal of any picture book biography is to share a true story, anchored by documented facts. A story. Not exposition. Not a cradle-to-grave information dump. My original focus in King of the Tightrope was the remarkable and daring feats that Blondin performed high over the Niagara River in 1859 and 1860. Though the determination and imagination themes remained in-tact, through re-envisioning the story, the focus shifted to the hows. In those days before electricity and technology, how did the funambulist accomplish this engineering feat? And why? How did he fenagle a 1300-foot-long, ten-inch-circumference rope across the raging Niagara River? How did he get the rope from the water to the cliffs? How did he stretch it, tighten it, stabilize it? How did he balance himself in that windy space?

Locating the unmarked spot of Blondin’s 1859 rope required investigation of print details and hikes along the American & Canadian cliffs.

The involved STEAM concepts required a new level of research that included engineers, a study of ropes and knots, a search for 19th century windlass options, a finer-toothed-comb cull through historical newspaper accounts and library archives, and a fortuitous connection with The Great Blondin’s great-great-grandson in France—someone I now consider a friend.

The new research led to revelations about fictionalized biographies and perpetuated falsehoods about Blondin. Writers and scholars have unwittingly relied on those falsehoods for almost 160-years. I had relied on them, too, until my new story focus required a deeper dive.

Nobody will warn you that getting scooped is a tantrum-worthy inconvenience. Re-envisioning one’s narrative takes time and effort. It is a balancing act in itself, but the view is mighty nice when you reach the other side.

 Stay tuned for posts about the depth of my research and my discovery of perpetuated falsehoods from primary sources.

I’m Teaching a Picture Book Biography Class

Word got out about the success of my 2018 online picture book biography class, so I’m bringing it back.

If you’d like to join my class, facilitated through a Zoom virtual classroom, click here for more information.

I’m not just a fan of picture book biographies, I dedicated my MFA critical thesis to the craft challenges involved. I’ve also written a stack of picture book biographies, including multi-award-winning Step Right Up: How Doc and Jim Key Taught the World About Kindness,NCSS Notable Abraham Lincoln’s Dueling Words, and forthcoming King of the Tightrope: When the Great Blondin Ruled Niagara. You can learn more about my books by clicking the Books page on this site. You’ll find testimonials from previous students by scrolling to the bottom of this page. I hope to see in class!

                In this class, we will cover:
How to identify and analyze mentor texts
* Identifying expository vs. narrative approaches
* Finding the scope/focus/angle of your story
* Crafting a voice unique to your story
* Identifying your story’s theme & incorporating a throughline
* Character and narrative arc
* Various structures available
* POV & perspectives
* The nonfiction/fiction threshold
* Research considerations
* Back matter
* Guest authors will join us for class #5 and #6

Two weeks before class begins, I’ll send a pre-class reading list, syllabus, and access to the private Facebook group.

Click here to register or email me with questions.

April Fools Hijinx, TLA, Free Stuff, Oh My!

In what section of the library can you get bitten by a snake?
—Hisssstory!

What does a prank-loving author like me do when she’s booked for fourth-grade expository writing workshops on April Fool’s Day? Why, prank the librarian (sorry, David!) and infuse the workshops with a few shenanigans, of course. It was great fun to model the stages of a new essay with the prank-filled day as the topic itself. I find that there’s less wiggling and eye-rolling when I can spark students’ imaginations or tender memories, or when I can tickle funny bones during lessons about writing concepts. Connecting on an emotional or sensory level allows greater resonance and recall when we discuss topic sentences, anecdotes, and transitions. For students, there’s nothing quite like hearing writing lessons from authors themselves, even when the content mirrors their teachers’ lessons. The magic of school visits is in the synergy between book creators, educators, and the students. I hope you’ll find a way to bring an author to your school or library.

The Texas Bluebonnet Award Nomination Was a Thrill!

Having Step Right Up: How Doc and Jim Key Taught the World About Kindness on half a dozen 2018-19 state award lists was a thrill in every possible way. Ending that nomination year as the guest author at the Temple ISD Bluebonnet Extravaganza and the Round Rock ISD Battle of the Bluebonnet Books was a downright honor. I wish I had photos from all of these events. I managed to snag a couple from my hometown Battle. I’m mighty proud and fond of the Round Rock ISD librarians pictured below and ALL library professionals. One of the great benefits of the Bluebonnet nomination was the chance to establish new friendships.

While my home state schools and libraries often share with me the ways in which Step Right Up has been part of the celebrations and curriculum, I occasionally hear of other states’ book award events doing similarly wonderful things to inspire young readers, as with this Vigo County elementary school in Indiana. Thank you, literacy champions!

Does your school lack the funding for an author visit? Here are some resources for you.

RRISD librarians
RRISD Battle of the Bluebonnet Books
Let’s Meet at #TXLA19!

This year’s Texas Library Association conference will be close to home for me, and I sure hope to see you there.

Though my 2019 STEAM-infused book, King of the Tightrope: When The Great Blondin Ruled Niagara doesn’t release until October 1st, Peachtree Publishing has arranged to have a limited number of advance reader copies for TLA attendees. Even I haven’t seen them yet! Stop by the Peachtree Booth #2648 on Wednesday (11:00-11:45) for this special signing. Abraham Lincoln’s Dueling Wordswhich was recently named an NCSS Notable Book and has become a useful text in character education units, will be available at the same time. I have two other signings where I will sign all of my books (Tuesday at 3:30 and Wednesday at 2:30 at the SCBWI booth #2530), plus a presentation, a panel, and speed dating. Whew! You can see my full conference schedule here. Let’s meet! Bonus for those who show up for my signings—sweet treats and a chance to win free books!

I’m co-teaching a picture book biography workshop for the Highlights Foundation with author/illustrator Don Tate on October, 2019. And my summer online classes will soon be announced. Click here for more information.
I value your feedback and welcome your questions. Click here to email me.

Spring 2019 Newsletter, a School Visit Offer, & a Cover Reveal

 Welcome to my March/Spring E-newsletter, reproduced here for your convenience. If you’d like to subscribe to my newsletter so that it arrives in your inbox, click here. 
Special School Visit Offer
Happy almost spring! Thank you for taking a few moments to read my e-news.

While 2019 snuck in and raced through the first months, I enjoyed a heap of school visits (see below), wrapped up my next book, King of the Tightrope: When the Great Blondin Ruled Niagara (October 1, 2019) and extracted a few scholarship essays from my high school senior. I am full of gratitude for all of it.

My nine-year journey (yes, 9 years!) with King of the Tightrope—a STEAM-infused picture book biography—concluded with a frantic rush to ensure that advance copies will be available at the April 15-18, 2019 Texas Library Association (TLA) Conference in Austin. The art by acclaimed illustrator Adam Gustavson is gorgeous, as you can see from the above cover, revealed on Betsy Bird’s Fuse #8 Productions column for School Library Journal last week. The extraordinary research journey for this book involved surprising turns, a trans-Atlantic descendent connection, revelations of 160-years of perpetuated falsehoods, and a process-deconstruction that required consultation with multiple engineers. I can’t wait to share the journey on panels, in articles, and during presentations.

Printer proofs have now been approved, and lucky TLA attendees and reviewers will be able to snag early copies of King of the Tightrope, long before the October 1, 2019 release. I’ll also be signing 2019 NCSS Notable Book Abraham Lincoln’s Dueling Words (Peachtree Publishers, 2018) and multi-award winning Step Right Up: How Doc and Jim Key Taught the World About Kindness (Lee and Low, 2016) at TLA, too. Below is my preliminary schedule, though I know of two additional events that will be added soon. Stay tuned!

School Visit News, and a Special Offer:
Between mid-September, 2018 and March 1, 2019, I have had the great honor of speaking at fifty-four Texas schools, and I have more author visits forthcoming this spring. I LOVE connecting with young readers and educators this way! A few months ago, I reflected on how school visits have inspired me in profound ways. Many thanks to the librarians and educators who welcomed me into their libraries and classrooms, invited me to return to lead writing workshops, and recommended me to others. They, like all library professionals and classroom educators, are literacy heroes! If you are interested in hosting me at your school, conference, or professional development event during spring 2019 or the 2019-20 school year, contact me. I would be delighted to travel anywhere in the world, and I strive to accommodate all budgets, so don’t hesitate to ask.

Book a school visit or workshop by May 1, 2019 (event to occur by May 1, 2020) with the secret code SPRING10, and I’ll discount my honorarium by 10%. 

The Texas Bluebonnet Award
A big ole Texas-sized thanks to the library association awards committees in Texas, Tennessee, Utah, Indiana, Kansas, and Louisiana for nominating Step Right Up for their state awards. And to librarians and classroom educators everywhere who championed Doc and Jim’s message about kindness and then embraced the character education tie-ins in Abraham Lincoln’s Dueling Words. As a native Texan, I’m extra misty about the TX Bluebonnet nod. And I have friends to thank for the invaluable tips and advice for managing the wonderful outcomes, including author Chris Barton and author/illustrator Don Tate. Chris kindly invited me to respond to his two-question interview in January. I have a new appreciation for student-elected state awards programs because they not only inspire kids to read more, they also invite them to participate in the democratic process. Win-win! Hearty congratulations to 2018-19 Bluebonnet Award winner Patricia McCormick, author of Sergeant Reckless,and to all of the new and outgoing nominees.


Writing Workshops:
If you are a librarian or classroom educator whose young writers are struggling with a particular writing concept—or if you are eager to prime your young writers for upcoming standardized tests, writing workshops led by a qualified author can expand upon and reinforce your curriculum goals. Unlike traditional presentations, workshops are hands-on writing for kids. In fact, this week, I’m tweaking three requested workshops—about voice, expository writing, and scene-building, for Texas schools. I love the swish-scratch sound of 50-60 pencils in the hands of inspired youngsters. If you would like information about my offerings, contact me. If you’re looking for a recommendation for other available writers, I’d be happy to share that, too.

#KidsNeedMentors
If you don’t already know about #KidsNeedMentors, I hope you’ll pop over to the dedicated page on founder/author Ann Braden’s website. 2018-19 is the group’s debut year, and I am delighted to be a mentor for two of the three hundred registered classrooms. A lovely part of this new outreach is the chance to support teachers. I’ve enjoyed meeting my third-grade mentee classes—one in Allen, TX and the other in Decatur, TX. In addition to Skype visits and a recent spontaneous in-person visit to their classrooms (so much fun!), I have sent letters, books and other goodies to further connect with the students and teachers. And they’ve sent me letters and artwork, too! Once you’ve checked out Ann’s website, I recommend you read her debut MG novel, The Benefits of Being an Octopus. It’s a truly heartwarming and enlightening story that humanizes issues of poverty, domestic violence, and even gun laws.

Other Book News:
* Step Right Up has been named to the 2019 Texas Topac Nonfiction Reading list
Abraham Lincoln’s Dueling Words is a featured American History selection on Betsy Bird’s Fuse #8 Productions column on the School Library Journal blog.
Abraham Lincoln’s Dueling Words has been named a 2019 NCSS Notable Book

Other Recent Reads that I Highly Recommend:
Chris Barton’s What Do You Do With a Voice Like That?, illustrated by Ekua Holmes
Martha Brockenbrough’s Unpresidented: A Biography of Donald Trump
Jenn Bailey’s A Friend for Henry, illustrated by Mike Song.
Lindsay Leslie’s This Book is Spineless, illustrated by Alice Brereton

Out-of-the-box Tips for Persuasive Writing in the Classroom:
Have students dissect effective TV commercials and compare them to Aristotle’s Rhetorical Triangle.


HELP WANTED!
If you know somebody (perhaps a retired librarian?) who might be interested in a very part-time virtual assistant job, please send them my way. I could use help with booking and managing school visits and other speaking opportunities. Thank you!