Mr. Ferris and His Wheel by Kathryn Gibbs Davis
with illustrations by Gilbert Ford
(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $17.99, Ages 4-8)
* A Junior Library Guild Selection
Before I read this fascinating nonfiction picture book about the history of the first Ferris Wheel, I had no idea of the backstory; the competition to find and build a structure for the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair that would be taller than the Eiffel Tower, the lack of financial support for its construction, the grueling work on the foundation in the dead of winter, the tight timeline in which to complete it, and the lack of faith professionals and the public had in the project. I’m thankful to Kathryn Gibbs Davis for opening my eyes to innovator, George Washington Gale Ferris, Jr.
“George had an idea, an idea for a structure that would dazzle and move, not just stand still like the Eiffel Tower.”
What wonderful feats of engineering and willpower enabled Ferris to prove all the naysayers wrong! Over 1.5 million naysayers to be precise, the amount of people who rode on the wheel at 50 cents apiece in the “nineteen weeks” that it was in operation. And they said it couldn’t be done. Not only did Ferris change the public’s mind, but he changed history by building out of steel, what is now a staple of amusement park rides.
“George knew something the chief did not. His invention would be delicate-looking and strong. It would be both stronger and lighter than the Eiffel Tower because it would be built with an amazing new metal — steel.”
On almost every spread, Davis has managed to weave in assorted facts about the wheel’s invention in a way that will keep youngsters as engaged and enthralled as I was. The story itself flows easily and the artwork is simply lovely to look at. Ford‘s fabulous jewel-toned illustrations of 19th century Chicago took me back in time to an era in the industrial age when even electricity in homes was not yet commonplace. But as the sun set each evening, Ferris’s wheel, with is 3,000 electric light bulbs, lit up the night sky and was visible “as far away as forty miles.” I was happy to learn that after the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, in 1894 “the next Ferris wheel appeared in California on a cliff overlooking the Pacific Ocean.”
How sad I was to discover in the back matter (where sources are quoted, and a bibliography along with helpful websites are provided) that a New York Times obituary says Ferris passed away on November 23, 1896 while still in his thirties. I can just imagine all the other innovative contributions he could have made to society had he lived longer. As it is, the enduring popularity of his ride is a testament to Ferris’s genius, and Davis has done a terrific job conveying that in a most readable, enjoyable way.
– Reviewed by Ronna Mandel
Click here for a link to a reading guide.
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