Sunday, September 9, 2018


Fall means back to school. For many places it also means state fairs and autumn carnivals. You may see Ferris wheels and bouncy ball pits popping up unexpectedly in parking lots and parks. It’s a great time to explore Mr. Ferris and His Wheel, written by Kathryn Gibbs Davis and illustrated by Gilbert Ford. This non-fiction narrative picture book tells the story of how mechanical engineer, George Washington Gale Ferris Jr., designed the first Ferris Wheel for the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair.

Although this is a picture book primarily for kids ages 6-10, the vocabulary and concepts explored make it worthy of discussion for middle school and high school students as well. High school teachers may even want to contrast Mr. Ferris and His Wheel with the non-fiction thriller, The Devil in White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America by Erik Larson. Contrasting the two books with older students provides an opportunity to talk about how different authors may use the same event to explore a topic for very different audiences and very different purposes.

I have been using my story plot analysis called Story Frames, to explore Mr. Ferris and His Wheel for the past couple of weeks with my third, fourth, and fifth grade students. For those of you unfamiliar with Story Frames, the tool I use to talk about story structure, see the description on my blog page entitled, The Secret Language of Stories. Information in bold below represents the key ideas for each section. Young children or children with expressive language challenges may only be able to state these key ideas. Older students may be expected to add more detail as well as transitions between ideas.

Check out the 10- Page VOCABULARY FREEBIE I have created for this book at my Teachers Pay Teachers Store.

It is part of a comprehensive 57-Page book companion also available on TpT entitled STORY FRAMES: NARRATIVE STRUCTURE FOR MR. FERRIS AND HIS WHEEL.

                               PLOT ANALYSIS FOR MR. FERRIS AND HIS WHEEL

The information in bold is the essential information I want my students to be able to discuss in their story retells and their written summaries.

Ordinary World: When George Ferris is a boy he dreams of riding on the water wheel he sees on the Carson River where he frequently goes fishing (see the very first illustration with the quote from Daniel H. Burnham). As an adult, Mr. Ferris works as a mechanical engineer in Pittsburgh designing roads, bridges, and tunnels.

Call & Response: The newspapers announce a nationwide contest for a design for the star attraction for the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago. The judges don’t like any of the drawings. They all look like the Eiffel Tower, the star attraction of the 1889 World’s Fair in France.

Mentors, Guides & Gifts: George's partner, William, helps him create a design for a Monster Wheel. The wheel is inspired by the water wheel of George’s youth along with many other smaller items like bicycle tires.

Crossing: Mr. Ferris takes his drawing to Chicago to show it to the construction chief of the fair.

New World: The construction chief tells Mr. Ferris that his wheel looks flimsy and will collapse. Opening day draws near and there is still no star attraction.

Problem, Prize, & Plan: Ferris finally gets permission to build his Monster Wheel (Prize) but the construction chief won’t give him any money for the materials he needs (Problem). Mr. Ferris goes from bank to bank to ask for a loan (Implied Plan), but they won’t give him money either. He finally uses his own money and the money of some rich investors.

Midpoint Attempt: When George’s crew starts digging, they face two new challenges. The ground is frozen and the shovels break. Underneath the frozen earth they find 20 feet of quicksand.

Downtime Response: Thirty-five feet down, George’s crew finally hits solid ground. They erect the two towers and the axle that serve as the foundation for the wheel.

Chase & Escape: It’s a race to the finish as thousands of parts arrive by train every day. There are 100,000 parts in all and the men work non-stop to complete the Monster Wheel.

Death & Transformation: George’s partner, William, loses hope and wants to give up. He is responsible for the many parts. They finally finish the project and George’s water wheel is transformed into a Monster Wheel that’s 265 feet high.

Climax/Final Attempt: The final test is to see if the wheel will spin. On opening day, 2,000 people watch as George, his wife, and their guests board Car Number One. It’s the size of a living room with 40 velvet seats. The wheel works and news of George’s invention, now called the Queen of the Midway, soon spreads across the country.

Final Reward: George’s wife gives him and golden whistle. The investors decide to give the invention his name and call it the Ferris Wheel. The Chicago World’s Fair, also known as the “White City,” inspires the Emerald City in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz as well as Disneyland. Walt Disney’s father was a construction worker at the fair.

Themes: The book explores several important themes including Inspiration and Invention.

  1. INSPIRATION: Inspiration is a thread found throughout this wonderful little story. On the first page, before the book begins, we see an illustration of young George fishing by the water wheel on the Carson River. A drawing of the water wheel is also posted on the wall in his workshop. The illustration of his workshop includes many other items of inspiration such as a bicycle tire and a pencil sharpener. I like to have fun with students searching that page for the many things that inspired the design for the Ferris Wheel. In addition, the bird cage is the inspiration for the first sky scraper. The White City is the inspiration for the Emerald City and Disneyland.
  2. INVENTION: The story is primarily about mechanical inventions, but it opens up discussions around all types of inventions including electric light bulbs, also appearing for the first time at the fair, and food inventions like the hamburger and Cracker Jacks. Cracker Jacks first appeared in 1893 at the Chicago World’s fair while the hamburger made its big debut at the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis. Kids enjoy talking about interesting food inventions. I also like to point out that both George Ferris and Walt Disney had childhood dreams that seemed crazy at the time but later changed the world. I tell students that they might have an idea right now that will one day become a reality.