As we continue to explore picture book authors who utilize primary sources in their research, I was excited to interview Donna Janell Bowman who, in her newest book, writes about one of my favorite lesser-known historical figures, The Great Blondin. Below, Bowman shares how primary sources played a role in King of the Tightrope: When the Great Blondin Ruled Niagara.
Can you tell us a little about your new picture book?
Bowman: King of the Tightrope: When the Great Blondin Ruled Niagara, illustrated by Adam Gustavson, is about French funambulist, or tightrope walker, Jean-Francois Gravelet. Funambulism has been around for centuries, and Blondin is perhaps the most famous performer in history, largely because of his remarkable feats above the Niagara River in 1859-60. He did far more than walk on his rope. I chose to focus on what nobody had ever written about—Blondin’s intuitive but complex engineering process. In other words, King of the Tightrope is about HOW Blondin engineered his rope and his performances. The underlying STEAM concepts deepened my story and added to the wow factor.
What was your initial inspiration to write about this person/event?
Bowman: I learned about Blondin by accident. One night in 2010 or 2011, while making dinner, I was listening to a PBS TV special about Niagara Falls. In a few-second mention of the daredevils that have braved the falls, The Great Blondin was mentioned. There was something about the man that I found irresistible. Perhaps it was the combination of pluck, bold daring, audacious determination, and physical artistry. I was hooked.
What primary sources did you come across in your research?
Bowman: Finding primary sources is like winning Willy Wonka’s golden ticket, though we writers must always balance them against scholarly secondary sources to ensure accuracy. For Blondin, I relied on primary sources like photographs, playbills, advertisements, Niagara city records, census records, old Niagara travel guides, witness reports, and the first biography of Blondin, purportedly written with his collaboration. That biography has been the core of almost everything written about Blondin since its 1862 publication. At the time, it appeared to be the closest source to Blondin himself. Until my fortuitous connection with Blondin’s great-great-grandson in France enlightened perpetuated falsehoods that originated in that biography.
Among my favorite research steps is digging through archived newspapers and books from the era. Free resources like The Library of Congress, Project Gutenberg, and Archive.org were also helpful. The latter is where I located the original 1862 biography mentioned above. For newspaper examples, check out this July 3, 1859 article from The New York Herald about Blondin’s first Niagara performance.
One of the challenges with Blondin was that he was in France until 1851. I don’t speak French, so learning about his first twenty-seven years was challenging. Here I relied on Blondin’s French descendant who had done his own research in France. Once in America, thanks to Blondin’s notoriety with acrobatic troupes, the funambulist was fairly easy to track through newspaper advertisements, playbills, and articles.
How did those sources impact your understanding of the Blondin and what he did?
Bowman: I learned the hard way not to rely solely on primary sources. Not every personal account is truthful or accurate. For example, in one dramatic account at Niagara, a reporter/witness claimed that sixteen horses powered a windlass to tighten the rope. That turned out to be false. Even in truthful accounts, primary sources have a limited perspective. As a researching writer, I needed a three-dimensional understanding of Blondin and the logistics of his feats. That came from examining primary sources, the right objective secondary sources, consultations with engineers, and a study of modern tightrope walkers.
How are those understandings seen by the reader in the picture book?
Bowman: If I’ve done my job well, the reader will enjoy the story and be inspired by Blondin’s fierce commitment to his art and his sheer determination to achieve what he imagined. That’s the theme, after all. With imagination and determination, we can achieve almost anything.
Exploring King of the Tightrope with Students
Bowman, through her research of primary and secondary sources and writing of this book, has created a secondary source about Blondin. Her point of learning a three-dimensional story of an individual through both primary and secondary sources can be explored with younger students with her picture book as that secondary source. In a post later this school year, I will explore one way that interplay may look with upper elementary or middle school students.
Author: Tom Bober
Tom Bober is a school librarian at RM Captain Elementary, 2018 Library Journal Mover and Shaker, former Teacher in Residence at the Library of Congress, and author of the upcoming book Elementary Educator’s Guide to Primary Sources: Strategies for Teaching. He writes the Picture Books and Primary Sources posts for AASL’s KQ blog and has written articles for several publications. Tom also presents at conferences, runs workshops, and gives webinars to promote the use primary sources in student learning. He began his career as an elementary classroom teacher, was also an educational technologist, and has spent the last nine years as a school librarian.