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King of the Tightrope: When the Great Blondin Ruled Niagara

Author: Donna Janell Bowman
Lower Age: 6
Upper Age: 10
Year Added: 2019

King of the Tightrope: When the Great Blondin Ruled Niagara is a book written by Donna Janell Bowman and illustrated by Adam Gustavson, meant for young readers between the ages of 6 and 10. The book is based on a true story and goes back to 1824 when Jean-François Gravelet was born. His family was involved in the entertainment business; they were acrobats, gymnasts, and funambulists (tightrope walkers). Jean-François learned about the family business when he was four years old. After a few years, he mastered the tightrope and, with his family, performed throughout France and beyond. Jean-François got so good at walking the tightrope that he wanted to change things up a little to keep it interesting. He would add props to his performance for an added challenge, such as playing a musical instrument on the rope. In 1851, Jean-François was invited to tour through America (as well as Cuba and Canada) and he started to plan even more challenging performances. After around 6 years of touring, he decided that his next performance should be to cross the Niagara Falls. The rope he would be on needed to extend all the way from America’s Goat Island to Canada’s Table Rock, about 1,100 feet.  Weathering the insults and derision aimed at him, Jean-François persevered. He practiced and practiced, designing his entire performance and building the tightrope according to it until one day he was ready to show the world. It wasn’t easy, and there were some real close calls, but he succeeded in becoming the first person to cross the falls on a tightrope! He didn’t stop there, continuing to do dramatic stunts throughout the summers of 1859 and 1860. 

    The book is a somewhat subtle way to introduce engineering thinking and design. This isn’t obvious by only looking at the title, but remember that saying about books and covers. The author does a great job describing the perseverance Jean-François needed while trying to cross the Niagara Falls. He also incorporates problem solving, research, and design skills for building the rope. One odd characteristic about this book is that it contains bits of French scattered about and there’s no English translation given. So, it may be beneficial for an adult to read the book first and understand what each word means to help answer questions from younger readers. 

    Besides the slight language barrier, this is a good book to show kids how to persevere even when society says: “That’s not possible!” It also teaches children that engineering can be used and found anywhere by the method of thinking Jean-François used throughout the book. Overall, King of the Tightrope: When the Great Blondin Ruled Niagara is an excellent book for showing how engineering thinking can be used in many exciting ways!