Emily Arnold McCully's Mirette on the High Wire
Children's book review by Steve Barancik
A book about conquering fear
Daughter of the widow Gâteau, young Mirette helps her mother around their boardinghouse for traveling performers in 19th century Paris.
One day, Bellini, a man calling himself a retired high-wire walker, takes a room.
In the courtyard - retired or not - he practices his craft. Young Mirette is entranced. She asks the performer to teach her the art of the tightrope.
Bellini sighed. "That would not be a good idea," he said. "Once you start, your feet are never happy again on the ground."
"Oh, please teach me!" Mirette begged. "My feet are already unhappy on the ground."
Now that's a nice bit of writing.
When Bellini is away, Mirette attempts to teach herself. She falls often, but the rope is low enough that she keeps getting back up.
Keeps getting better.
One day she shows Bellini what she's managed to teach herself. The man is clearly conflicted about Mirette's drive to walk the high-wire. But better she should do it with his guidance than without.
Soon it is revealed - by a money-grubbing theatrical agent - that Bellini is The Great Bellini, the man who crossed Niagara Falls on a wire, stopping halfway across to cook an omelette.
But, now, The Great Bellini has lost his nerve.
Mirette on the High Wire
Author McCully chances something most picture books don't. She takes us inside the minds of two characters, Mirette and Bellini.
Bellini's shame leads him to book a performance he shouldn't, and when he freezes on the wire, it is Mirette who comes to the rescue. (No surprise that there is a sequel, Mirette and Bellini Cross Niagara Falls.) The little girl saves the grown man.
Yes, it's unlikely, yes, it's a fantasy, but yes, it works.
McCully's beautiful watercolors capture the physical and emotional stakes. (This beautiful book won the 1993 Caldecott Medal.) A born tree-climber herself, she intended the book as a celebration of risk-taking, though she stresses the imporance of practice and mental preparation as well.
You'd be hard-pressed to find a better girls-can-do-what-they-set-their-minds-to book than Mirette on the High Wire.
Webmaster's note: There are sequels!
More Caldecott reviews.
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