Written and Illustrated by Emily Arnold McCully
G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1992
Awards: Caldecott Medal (1993)
One hundred years ago in Paris, when theaters and music halls drew travelling players from all over the world, the best place to stay was at the widow Gâteau’s, a boardinghouse on English Street.
The plot in a nutshell: A young girl becomes fascinated with a semi-retired tightrope walker, especially after he teaches her the skill.
Mirette overhears Bellini, a former tightrope walker, tell her mother that he is staying at her boardinghouse for a rest, but then she sees him walking across the laundry line in the courtyard. She is instantly smitten with the idea of walking in the air and asks him to teach her. At first he refuses, but when he sees her trying it out on her own, he agrees to train her. She learns, from other boardinghouse guests, that he was once the best in the world. Discussing this with Bellini, she learns that he was sidelined by fear and she encourages him to try again. He schedules a performance, but freezes at the start of it. Mirette runs to the opposite roof and walks out to meet him, to the elation of the crowd below. The last picture shows a poster advertising the two of them performing together.
I remember this as one of the books my kids read for the Accelerated Reader program back in elementary school. At that time, I was immediately struck by the artwork and the way that it perfectly evoked the time and place of its setting. Author/illustrator Emily Arnold McCully’s Caldecott Medal-winning artwork is reminiscent of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, which really gives it a true Parisian feel. The story itself is warm and wonderful, with a strong female protagonist and a great message about courage and support.
On the inside cover, Ms. McCully states that the book began as a biography of The Great Blondin, who performed daring tightrope feats in the 1800’s, but that she added in Mirette to represent her own risk-taking nature, and made it a work of fiction (although Bellini’s act is very similar to The Great Blondin’s). Ms. McCully has written two sequels, Mirette and Bellini Cross Niagara Falls and Starring Mirette and Bellini, that follow the travels of the performing pair.
And what did we learn? What I take away from this book is that sometimes even a hero needs a hero.