Tracey Fern is no stranger to well-crafted picture book biographies, having released a handful of well-reviewed ones in recent years. In her newest, Dare the Wind, she tells the true story of Eleanor “Ellen” Prentiss, born in Marblehead, Massachusetts, in 1814. Ellen, “born with saltwater in her veins,” spent her days at the shore and learned at a young age from her father how to navigate a ship and operate a sextant. Because of Ellen’s desire for adventure and her competitive nature (“there is no glory in second place”), her father would often caution her—a recurring theme in this story—that “a true navigator must have the caution to read the sea, as well as the courage to dare the wind.”
After marrying Perkins Creesy, a man who also adored sailing, they set out on a ship named the Flying Cloud on a 15,000-mile trip from New York City to Cape Horn and then up to San Francisco, all in the name of reaching the Gold Rush. If Ellen and Perkins traveled the fastest, they’d receive a bonus as well. It was the dream of a lifetime for her, and she and Perkins set out with fearlessness.
With a lively and dramatic voice, Fern lays out the perils of the voyage—the ship’s mainmast breaks, and Ellen and her crew sail the ship around dangerous waters near the coast of Brazil—and captures the ups and downs of the journey with an almost breathtaking pace. Illustrator Emily Arnold McCully’s watercolors move with ease from placid, peaceful waters to angry, churning seas, and her playful lines give readers a solid sense of the thrill of the journey. In one illustration, we’re below deck with Ellen, shown with an off-kilter perspective, as if we readers are rocking on the waves with her.
Ellen’s voyage beat previous records and lasted for three years, according to the informative Author’s Note and tips for further reading that close the book. It was a remarkable achievement, especially during a time when a woman navigating a ship was altogether taboo.
This is an excellent biography of a record-breaking American sailor.
Julie Danielson features authors and illustrators at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, a children’s literature blog.