I must admit that I have fallen in love with Emily Arnold McCully. One of the reasons why we came up with bimonthly themes here in GatheringBooks is that it would allow us to expand our reading range and explore other authors, storytellers, book artists that we are not very familiar with. At the rate we’re going, we have already exceeded our own expectations. Today, we share another McCully book which fits our Girl Power theme: Mirette on the High Wire, a Caldecott medalist.

Finding the Spark and Daring to Dream. The setting of the picture book was 120 years ago during the height of the artiste-culturati scene in Paris. Mirette was at the very heart of it all as acrobats, mimes, artists, jugglers gather from all over the globe and congregate in her mother’s, Madame Gateau’s, boardinghouse on English Street, believed to be the best place to stay at the time. I could just imagine the conversations, the glitter, and the glamor of how it is like to live the “bohemian” life. While Mirette lives in the same boardinghouse as their artist-guests, she remained on the sidelines: “washing linens, chopping leeks, paring potatoes, and mopping floors.” However, she would avidly listen to their adventures and let her spirit soar alongside the beautiful conversations she would often eavesdrop on.

Things took a turn for Mirette when a “tall, sad-faced stranger arrived.” He introduced himself as Bellini, a retired high-wire walker. Unlike the other guests who loved socializing, this stranger preferred to dine alone. Mirette became hopelessly enchanted when she spied Bellini crossing the laundry wire one afternoon:

Of all the things a person could do, this must be the most magical. Her feet tingled, as if they wanted to jump on the wire beside Bellini.

Apprenticeship and the Paradox of Anxiety. As expected, Mirette became Bellini’s protegé upon the former’s insistence. As the trite adage goes: When the student is ready, the teacher will appear. Such was the case with Mirette, who, with arms flailing, heart jumping on her throat, feet unsteady – she crosses the wire and falls down again and again and again. Yet, she gritted her teeth and practiced non-stop to prove to Bellini that she is a worthy student.

What Mirette did not know was that the once-great Bellini had a secret – which she discovered by accident when one of the guests recognized Bellini in the boardinghouse. Apparently, the man is a legend! He crossed Niagara falls on a thousand foot wire in ten minutes and even managed to cook an omelette on a stove full of live coals in the process. He has flair, showmanship, a veritable theatre on wire. As Mirette practically begged Bellini to allow her to join his performances, her mentor confessed sadly that he found fear. 

Mirette was astonished. “Afraid?” she said. “But why?”

“Once you have fear on the wire, it never leaves,” Bellini said.

“But you must make it leave!” Mirette insisted.

“I cannot,” said Bellini.

I love how matter-of-fact Mirette was in all her childlike simplicity – with very neat categories of shoulds and shouldn’ts. While adults realize that anxiety is far more complicated than ‘making it leave’ – to a child whose heart is bursting with excitement, cloaked with invincibility, such a thing is unfathomable. The paradoxical thing about anxiety is that it brings about the very exact thing that the person fears the most. Whether Mirette was able to convince the great Bellini to freefall yet again and walk on feet with wings, I shall leave for you to discover.

Teacher Resources and Links. I was able to find a few resources for the book that teachers can explore. The website TeachingChildrenPhilosophy has detailed guidelines and possible questions for philosophical discussion – ranging from the nature of fear and how bravery and courage can be defined. Gregory Sager from Clark University has a very comprehensive curriculum guide that revolves around the book which includes curriculum frameworks, pedagogies, assessment options and extension activities that teachers can explore.

Would you step on that wire, like Mirette, and dance with arms outstretched to the skies? Would you dare to climb that wire of clouds and dreams?

Mirette on the High Wire by Emily Arnold McCully. Paper Star: The Putnam & Grosset Group, 1992. Book borrowed from the NIE Library. Book photos were taken by me.

Caldecott Medal book and New York Best Times Illustrated Book. 

AWB Reading Challenge Update: 48 (35)

PictureBook Challenge Update: 56 of 120

Caldecott Challenge Update: 9 of 24

Myra is a Teacher Educator and a registered clinical psychologist based in Al Ain, United Arab Emirates. Prior to moving to the Middle East, she lived for eleven years in Singapore serving as a teacher educator. She has edited five books on rediscovering children’s literature in Asia (with a focus on the Philippines, Malaysia, India, China, Japan) as part of the proceedings for the Asian Festival of Children’s Content where she served as the Chair of the Programme Committee for the Asian Children’s Writers and Illustrators Conference from 2011 until 2019. While she is an academic by day, she is a closet poet and a book hunter at heart. When she is not reading or writing about books or planning her next reads, she is hoping desperately to smash that shuttlecock to smithereens because Badminton Is Life (still looking for badminton courts here at UAE - suggestions are most welcome).

11 comments on “Mirette on the High Wire by Emily Arnold McCully

  1. I used to love this book as a kid! Such a great choice!

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    • Hi Grace, I’m glad it made you remember your childhood. And to think I only discovered the book now that I’m in my 30s and I still love it. 🙂

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  2. Where do you find these wonderful books. I’ve never seen so many of them. I absolutely love this story. I remember playing circus and acrobatics at home. Loved your review Myra and your enthusiasm for the book. I can just imagine Mirette watching the borders with awe from upstairs. Great book!

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    • Hi Pat, I think my falling in love with the book has to do with the notion of free falling, conquering one’s fears and anxieties, and just “being.” Mirette is such a decisive girl who knew exactly what she wants and how to get it. Truly a perfect choice for our Girl Power theme. 🙂 I’m glad you enjoyed the review. 🙂

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  3. Joanna

    I have to agree with, Pat, you do find some cracking books. I love how you have used your bi-monthly theme to push yourselves towards new authors and illustrators. I am totally under the enchantment of this story…. the relationship, the challenge, the child v adult perspectives, the setting in Paris… wonderful choice and it will go on my list. Thank you, Myra!

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    • Hi Joanna, I was actually thinking about you when I wrote the review, with the setting being in Paris. I am truly enjoying our bimonthly themes as well. Let me know if you find the book, I’d love to know what you think of it.

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  4. Fats Suela

    You create beautiful themes in your review as always. When Bellini said that line about fear, I can only surmise that it always felt like the first time whenever he crosses the wire. That even though he had done it so many times, it seemed like it was back to square one once again, with fear hovering over him.

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    • I couldn’t help but feel for Bellini as he begins to struggle with something that has always come naturally for him. Thank you for the kind words, baby girl. 🙂

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  5. Pingback: List of Girl Power Themed Books and Poems: Picture Books, YA, Adult Lit, and Poetry «

  6. My daughter and I love Mirette On The High Wire! We used it as part of our preschool homeschool. Up to now, she loves walking on our tile lines pretending to walk on a high wire like Mirette and the great Bellini!

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  7. Patti Poseidon Means

    I am tracking down any of Emily Arnold McCully’s books right now … and ran into this ‘gathering books’!! I just bought Ballerina Swan for my 5 yr. old granddaughter at Half Price Books last night. I was reading it and enjoying it myself as I am sitting on the patio – figured it was good to read it first — and then to a little girl!! I started to make a list of EAMcC’s books that I remember from when we did flyers for a small bookstore that we worked for! I especially remember Mirette!! – my little girl from back then – Arianne – would surely know it too!! I can’t wait to buy her a copy of it to give her for Christmas! So interesting!!

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