Mirette on the High Wire, 1992, by Emily Arnold McCully

This story is any adventurous little girl’s fantasy: famous high-wire walker (Berlini) comes to Paris and stays at the bed and breakfast owned by Mirette’s mother. Mirette spies him walking the laundry rope, teaches herself to do the same, and convinces him to tutor her. He himself has “the fear” and no longer walks high. Until, one night, he decides to go for it above the streets of Paris. Mirette rushes to his aid when his fear overcomes him, and they pull of a loudly lauded show high above the city’s streets.  The happy ending:

Mirette on the High Wire is a 1993 Caldecott Medal book. The water color is really beautifully done, yes, but what else makes it Caldecott? There is really only one award for kids books these days, and you’d imagine it would go to the crème de la crème. So? Mirette…?

Flash back to 1992. “Feminism.” The capital F word has had many births, deaths, and rebirths. During the 1980’s the feminist movement experienced a radically dead period. The ERA (Equal Rights Amendment) ground to a halt in 1982, and the hyper-masculine Reagan period reigned as all forward-moving political motion for Feminism sputtered and died. Until 1992. Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennslyvania vs. Casey was a case that challenged the constitutional rulings that were the result of Roe vs. Wade and was brought all the way to the Supreme Court. Now, by the 80’s, abortion had become the most prominent argument in feminism, at least in the media. The feminists against the right-wing Bible Belt. And so, though Feminism was apparently in one of its dead moments in history, this case really brought the feminists back out on the field. 750, 000 people marched on D.C. during the ruling of Planned Parenthood vs. Casey. A year later, Rebecca Walker coined the phrase “third-wave Feminism”, and off we go. Where we are now, I won’t go into, but where we were in 1993 when the Caldecott board sat down to vote on its gold medal winner? Maybe, just maybe, we can say that Feminism was pretty highly in the public consciousness. And maybe, we can also say that a book about a little bad-ass girl digging crazy, brave things and coming to the aid of a big, strong white man (without rubbing it in his face), appealed to a Caldecott board. Doesn’t hurt that the author, Emily Arnold McCully, is a woman either. So yes, the illustrations are awesome. But so is the cultural relevance and the potentially political interpretation. A look at the runners up that year– a post-modern commentary (The Stinky Cheese Man), the successful exploits of a group of disabled, yet heroic mice (Seven Blind Mice), and a young black girl’s recount of her day in the cotton field (Working Cotton)– only seems to strengthen that outlook.

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