|Image from EmilyArnoldMcCully.com|
One hundred years ago in Paris young Emily lived with her mother, Madame Gâteau, who owned a boardinghouse for acrobats, jugglers, actors, and mimes from around the world. One day a tall, sad-faced stranger arrived. He was the great retired high-wire walker, Bellini. The next day when Emily went to the courtyard to hang up the laundry she found Bellini walking across the laundry line! She begged Bellini to teach her how to walk on the high-wire, but he refused. But Emily was determined and after many days of practicing she was able to walk on the laundry line and Bellini began to give her lessons. All was well until an agent arrived at the boardinghouse and told the other residents stories about the Great Bellini’s fearless feats. How he cooked an omelet on a wire over Niagara Falls and fired a cannon over the bullring in Barcelona. Mirette rushed to Bellini and asked him to take her with him on his next marvelous feat, but Bellini says, no because he is afraid. “Once you have fear on the wire, it never leaves.” Will Bellini be able to overcome his fear? How can Mirette help him?
Winner of the Caldecott Medal in 1993, this story of friendship triumphing fear is beautifully told and illustrated. The vocabulary is rich, including wonderful words like, “commotion,” “flailed,” and “astonished.” McCully’s carefully chosen words convey the motivation behind each specifically described movement. Emily’s fascination with the high wire is so vividly created that the reader cannot help but share her enthusiasm. The illustrations (watercolor and pastel perhaps?) are impressionistic and the rich colors are evocative of Paris in the late 1890’s. McCully uses a variety of angles, which heightens the importance of the high wire in the story.
Use this story for a storytime about fear and/or bravery. The Teaching Children Philosophy Wiki has a list of discussion questions that relate to this topic. Good books to pair with this story might be Thunder Cake, Little Mouse’s Big Book of Fears, or Sheila Rae, the Brave.
After you read this book talk about the many hours of practice Emily put into learning how to walk the high wire. Discuss the way many people are able to make activities look effortless and how that is often because they have put lots of hard work into their craft. Read Angelina Ballerina and compare the hardworking protagonists.
Kids will want to walk on the high wire after reading this book, so use masking or painters tape to lay “wires” on the floor. Scholastic has some ideas for balance and center of gravity activities. Read other books about high wire walking and other circus arts, such as Peter Spier’s Circus, If I Ran the Circus, and You See a Circus, I See…
Mirette and Bellini continue their adventures in Starring Mirette and Bellini and Mirette and Bellini Cross Niagara Falls. However, these books maybe harder to find as I believe they are currently out of print.