Mirette on the High Wire by Emily Arnold McCully

  • When purchased:  August 23rd, 2013
  • Where:  Books Inc. Palo Alto
  • Why:  I’m doing research for a picture book I’m considering writing
  • How Read:  In one sitting, then again, and again, and soon to be read again

I’ve recently had cause to study a number of children’s picture books. In July, a friend mentioned to me that she’s looking for a way to expand her portfolio of illustration work. I have an idea for a picture book that I’ve been kicking around for a decade. We’ve met a couple of times to discuss the story and characters, and I believe we have something worth exploring. Hence the comparison research.

Of all the books I’ve experienced of late (I say “experienced” instead of “read” because the latter doesn’t adequately describe how one must process both text and art in order to appreciate a picture book fully), Mirette on the High Wire is far-and-away my favorite. It is the winner of the 1992 Caldecott Medal for excellence in children’s picture book art. And while its paintings are certainly visually rich, the words are what I fell in love with.

The book tells the story of Mirette, a young girl living in the colorful world of Paris in the late 1800’s.  Mirette’s widow mother runs a boardinghouse that attracts a theatrical crowd, including the Great Bellini, a high-wire walker who’s lost his nerve.  When Mirette spies Bellini practicing on the laundry line, she implores him to teach her to “cross the courtyard on air.” Thus begin her lessons in “thinking only of the wire” and “crossing to the end.”

Author/illustrator Emily Arnold McCully provides vivid pictures of Mirette poised on a narrow rope or tumbling through the air, as well as evocative paintings of period Paris. The language she chooses to accompany these images is almost poetic in its simplicity, but it isn’t easy. She uses some difficult words such as “vagabond” and “protégée,” but skillfully surrounds them with enough context for a child to understand the meanings with an assist from an adult.

I loved this story so much that I sat down at my computer and re-typed the text so I could get a feel for its rhythms. My protagonist is also a young girl, so I appreciate greatly how Mirette’s character is introduced and developed. She is spirited and passionate without resorting to the well-worn cliché of spunky. Her arc is quite clear, and the theme is gently imparted. Given that this is a tale of instruction and redemption, Mirette on the High Wire is a book best savored by child and adult together.

From the Stack to the…

  • Top Shelf:  An absolute keeper and a book to be shared. I intend to send copies to my friends with young children, particularly girls, who could make excellent use of a daredevil heroine in their lives and imaginations.

One comment

  1. […] in order to further my understanding of that highly specialized craft. I mentioned in my review of Mirette on the High Wire that I’ve been collaborating with a friend on a picture book idea. I had the pleasure of […]

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