Kid Lit Frenzy hosts one of my favorite reading challenges, Nonfiction Picture Book Wednesday. Visit her blog to discover more wonderful nonfiction titles.
Mr. Ferris and His Wheel does everything right. Kathryn Gibbs Davis identifies an excellent subject for a nonfiction picture book–mechanical engineer George Ferris’s attempt to top the magnificence of the Eiffel Tower with an American-made wonder to be unveiled at the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago. There is plenty of page-turning drama throughout the story, first as different inventors, architects, and engineers compete to design the structure, then as Ferris attempts to win approval for his unique design of a mechanical wheel that passengers can ride, and then as Ferris must construct the wheel in a race against the clock and using his own start-up money.
One problem I sometimes have with nonfiction picture books about architecture, engineering, and inventions is that they don’t adequately take my limitations as a reader into account. I don’t understand building and construction, and I seem to have a mental block about the way things work. Sadly, I have managed to get confused in countless nonfiction picture books about these topics. (I am still trying to wrap my brain around the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge!) But I never got confused in Mr. Ferris and His Wheel. Thankfully, there are only a couple of pages about the wheel’s actual construction, and they are written more with human interest than engineering in mind. Construction workers use dynamic to blast a space for the wheel’s foundation–only to discover quicksand! Once they hit solid ground, “they carefully lowered a seventy-ton axle with fittings–‘the weight of a “Mogul” locomotive’ train–between them.” These are the kind of comparisons that make sense to me, even if I have no clue what a “Mogul” locomotive train is. I do know it’s big!
The story focuses on the dramatic construction of the wheel itself, but Davis incorporates extra information throughout the text by including short paragraphs written in smaller font and distinct from the main storyline itself. I especially enjoyed learning about Ferris’s inspiration–childhood imaginings of “shrinking [a water wheel] to the size of one of his toy soldiers and hitching a ride up, up, and away in one of its wooden buckets.”
Gilbert Ford’s illustrations are a fine accompaniment to the text–vividly colored and highly evocative of the time period.