They Did What?!? Picture Books about Daring Risk-Takers

BookendsLynn: There are risk-takers and then there are crazy risk-takers! Today we’re featuring picture books about two different, over-the-top MAJOR risk takers. The mother/grandmother in me wants these books to come with a warning about not trying this at home and the latent kid part of me is running a sound track of WOWs.

Crossing Niagara: the Death-Defying Tightrope Adventures of the Great Blondin by Matt TavaresI get to go first with a book that took my breath away, Crossing Niagara: the Death-Defying Tightrope Adventures of the Great Blondin (2016) by Matt Tavares. My “wow” soundtrack started when I saw the cover and kept playing long after I closed the book, my admiration divided equally between the ridiculously risky feats of the Great Blondin and Tavares’ spectacular illustrations.

Jean Franςoise Gravelet, aka the Great Blondin, was a circus tightrope-walker longing for an amazing challenge. When he saw Niagara Falls for the first time, he knew he had found it. After stringing a tightrope from the American side to the Canadian side that was 1100 feet long and 3 inches wide, Blondin announced he would walk across on June 30, 1859. An enormous crowd gathered, convinced he would fall to his death. The daredevil proved them wrong, not only walking both ways but even performing a series of tricks. For the next two years, Blondin repeated his spectacular feat, adding additional complications such as crossing blindfolded, walking on stilts, pushing a wheelbarrow, and once, carrying his terrified manager on his back!

Tavares has paired his spectacular, large-sized illustrations perfectly to Gravelet’s stunts, providing truly beautiful views of the thundering falls as well as humor-filled scenes of the crowds. A fold-out illustration of several stunts is enough to trigger anyone’s fear of heights. This gorgeous book is a perfect choice for story hours or classroom use.

Anything But Ordinary Addie by Mara RockliffCindy: The risky behavior in my book involves catching a bullet with a china plate . . . or ending up dead. Mara Rockliff’s Anything But Ordinary Addie: The True Story of Adelaide Herrmann, Queen of Magic (2016) is a feast for the eyes and the imagination. Young Addie didn’t want to be ordinary—she wanted to “astonish, shock, and dazzle.” She sewed herself a dance outfit and joined the ballet, shocking her family for the first of many times as she dabbled in nontraditional roles. When she proposed to Herrmann the Great, a magician, shortly after meeting him, her life truly became anything but ordinary.

Addie became Alexander Herrmann’s magician’s assistant, one night allowing herself to be shot out of a cannon without any practice, all to ensure the show went on.

He set fire to Addie.
He chopped off her head.
He made her vanish
(poof!)
into thin air.

After Herrmann’s death, Addie wanted the show to still go on, so she decided she would do the magic. Afraid that no one would show up to see a female magician, she decided to attempt the very dangerous bullet-catching trick. Talk about risk-taking . . . some magicians died attempting this feat.

Addie’s life story through Rockliff’s storytelling is truly astonishing, shocking, and dazzling, but so is Iocopo Bruno’s artwork illustrating this picture-book biography. Many recent middle-grade novels feature his gorgeous and distinctive cover art, such as JinxThe School for Good & Evil, Iron-Hearted Violet and James Preller’s Scary Tales series. You’ll also recognize this talented pair from Mesmerized: How Ben Franklin Solved a Mystery that Baffled All of France.

Did I just say, “Mystery?” The fun is ready to begin as Booklist Reader joins Booklist in another month-long May celebration of mysteries. Take a risk . . . come along for the ride. What could go wrong?

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About the Author:

Cindy Dobrez and Lynn Rutan are Booklist reviewers and middle-school librarians who have chaired both ALA’s Best Books for Young Adults and the Michael L. Printz Award for YA Literature committees. Follow Bookends on Twitter at @BookendsBlog. You can also find Cindy at @cdobrez and Lynn at @482april.

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