Friend Friday

It is such a treat to once again celebrate Donna Janell Bowman and her books. We obviously share a passion for history; but what I especially love about Donna’s work is that it often introduces us to little known stories, as is the case with her newest title, King of the Tightrope: When the Great Blondin Ruled Niagara, illustrated by Adam Gustavson (Peachtree Publishers). The book won’t be published for one more month but one of you lucky readers won’t have to wait that long because Donna has graciously decided to give away a copy! To enter, click this Rafflecopter link.

Donna Janell Bowman

Nobody warned me that falling in love with an idea worth writing about is risky. Nobody warned me that I could spend years researching and writing a book only to be scooped by another writer, as if they snuck into my headspace via Harry Potter’s pensieve. The reality is that the ideas swirling around us can be manifested by many writers within a short time. Once scooped, a writer has two choices: Abandon their project or commit to differentiating it.

I’ve been scooped many times. Some ideas simply didn’t have a strong enough hold to embolden me through the challenges, so they were set aside. For others, I’ve been willing to go to the proverbial mat with my muse. Such was the case when a competing picture book about Dr. William Key and Beautiful Jim Key hit shelves, years into my work on what would become Step Right Up: How Doc and Jim Key Taught the World About Kindness (Lee and Low, 2016). You couldn’t pry my heart and hands away from that story, so I did the work to make my book different. Deeper. Better than it was originally. Thank goodness!

Most recently, a fabulous (darn it!) picture book biography about Jean-Francois Gravelet, The Great Blondin, hit shelves in 2016, just as my now-soon-to-be-released book, King of the Tightrope: When the Great Blondin Ruled Niagara (Peachtree, October 2019), was going to contract. Cosmic coincidences happen, both in timing and similar story approaches. After my wee meltdown, my editor and I quickly decided that the best remedy was a new focus for my narrative. 

The Great Blondin on his rope above the Niagara River

The goal of any picture book biography is to share a true story, anchored by documented facts. A story. Not exposition. Not a cradle-to-grave information dump. My original focus in King of the Tightrope was the remarkable and daring feats that Blondin performed high over the Niagara River in 1859 and 1860. Though the determination and imagination themes remained in-tact, through re-envisioning the story, the focus shifted to the hows. In those days before electricity and technology, how did the funambulist accomplish this engineering feat? And why? How did he fenagle a 1300-foot-long, ten-inch-circumference rope across the raging Niagara River? How did he get the rope from the water to the cliffs? How did he stretch it, tighten it, stabilize it? How did he balance himself in that windy space? 

Solving the mysteries included hiking the American and Canadian sides to pinpoint the unmarked location of Blondin’s 1859 rope. Right about here:)

The involved STEAM concepts required a new level of research that included engineers, a study of ropes and knots, a search for 19th century windlass options, a finer-toothed-comb cull through historical newspaper accounts and library archives, and a fortuitous connection with The Great Blondin’s great-great-grandson in France—someone I now consider a friend. 

Research stops included the Niagara Falls Public Library

The new research led to revelations about fictionalized biographies and perpetuated falsehoods about Blondin. Writers and scholars have unwittingly relied on those falsehoods for almost 160-years. I had relied on them, too, until my new story focus required a deeper dive. 

Nobody will warn you that getting scooped is a tantrum-worthy inconvenience. Re-envisioning one’s narrative takes time and effort. It is a balancing act in itself, but the view is mighty nice when you reach the other side.  

King of the Tightrope: When the Great Blondin Ruled Niagara Written by Donna Janell Bowman and Illustrated by Adam Gustavson

Donna Janell Bowman is the author of the award-winning picture book biographies Step Right Up: How Doc and Jim Key Taught the World About Kindness, illustrated by Daniel Minter (Lee and Low, 2016) and Abraham Lincoln’s Dueling Words, illustrated by S.D. Schindler (Peachtree, 2018). In October 2019, her STEAM-infused picture book biography, King of the Tightrope: When The Great Blondin Ruled Niagara, illustrated by Adam Gustavson, releases from Peachtree Publishers. Donna has an MFA in Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts and enjoys mentoring writers and inspiring kids through school visits. She lives in central Texas and is represented by Erin Murphy Literary Agency. To learn more about Donna, visit her website .

No Responses to “Friend Friday”

  1. Meredith Davis

    What a great article. I love seeing how other people work, and especially what happens when the going gets tough and the tough overcome! Inspiring!

  2. Nancy Furstinger

    Most of us have had mini meltdowns after being scooped, but I’m so glad you persevered. Loved “Step Right Up” and am looking forward to your book on Blondin. Your post emphasizes how important primary source research is. I wrote a YA bio of Irving Berlin, which required massive research (he lived to the amazing age of 101); thankfully I got in touch with his eldest daughter, who read my ms and told me ALL of the adult books published about Berlin (including one considered the bible) had numerous factual errors.

  3. Beth Andesron

    Wonderful post! I’m a firm believer that every “bio”-ish story should have something special in the telling that sets it apart from being a giant info dump and inspires expanded thinking on the part of the reader and the writer. Can’t wait to see this book!

  4. Cheryl Johnson

    I can’t imagine being scooped! Congrats on pushing through and making your manuscript even better than it was before!

  5. Linda Johns

    I love how you turned this into a creative challenge for yourself! I’m sure yours always would have stood on its own, and now it’s even stronger.

  6. Carolyn Fraiser

    This is something I’ve always feared, especially in writing non-fiction. We all hope it doesn’t happen, but it’s nice to know we can rebound (sometimes even better) when it does.

  7. Cynthia Argentine

    Thanks for your great advice in this encouraging post. I recently had this happen, too, and I’m in the process of “differentiating” my story. Like you, I’m finding that extra research and a new angle are leading to an even better manuscript. Congratulations on your perseverance and success!

  8. Angela Turner

    Thank you for sharing your experience. I am learning that digging deeper leads to richer details and more heart. I put away one story that got scooped but I may want to pull it out and see if I can find a new vision for it.

  9. Pamela Courtney

    Great advice on what can be a heartbreaking, air sucking experience. BUT reinventing narrative is a challenge too divine. So glad for this post.

  10. Tiffany Dickinson

    I really appreciate this! Frequently I learn about a fascinating (new to me) person and think I would like to take on that subject. So, I research of course and SO often find it’s already been done. But your perseverance is inspiring and I will reconsider dropping it next time. Congratulations!