Emily Arnold McCully began her career not as an author, but as an illustrator. Her artwork was noticed by an editor in the 1960s which lead to her first illustrated book, Sea Beach Express by Greg Panetta. She worked solely as an illustrator in the field of children's literature until 1984 when she published her first book, Picnic. It was originally published as a wordless book, but words have been added in current publications. Picnic features a family of mice that are off to have a great day of play, relaxation, and good food when they lose the littlest mouse. This mouse family is also featured in the books First Snow and School which follow the same style as Picnic.
Later in her career Emily McCully won the distinguished Caldecott Medal in 1993 for her book Mirette on the High Wire. It is the first book in a set of three about a young girl, Mirette and her mentor Bellini. This is a fictional story yet the idea was born when McCully was preparing to write a book about the famous high wire walker named Charles Blondin. The story begins when Bellini checks into the boardinghouse owned by Mirette's mother. Later, Mirette observes Bellini walking on a clothes wire near his assigned room. She enthusiastically asks Bellini to teach her to tightrope walk. Bellini is resistant at first but is later moved by Mirette's relentless desire to succeed even after falling many times during her first few attempts. Bellini agrees to teach her and they spend many hours practicing together. It is revealed to Mirette that Bellini has grown fearful of performing publicly and is embarrassed that he can no longer do all the great things that he once did on the wire. He decides to face his fear by walking once again for Mirette. However, once he steps foot on the wire he freezes and is unable to continue until Mirette approaches the high wire from the other side. Mirette learned a great skill from the lessons of Bellini and she was able to repay him by helping him overcome his fear.
On the last page of Mirette on the High Wire, Mirette is staring at a poster advertising the high wire act of herself and Bellini. In Starring Mirette and Bellini, the second book in the series, the two travel all over Europe performing until they are scheduled to have a performance in Moscow. Mirette is saddened by the number homeless and hungry people. After a successful show, Bellini tells the people to keep the dream alive of obtaining freedom and happiness. Once Bellini comes down from the wire he taken to jail for speaking against the czar. Mirette comes up with a courageous plan to rescue her partner. Once he is safe the two immediately return home to Paris and are invited to cross Niagara Falls. The last book in the Mirette Trilogy is Mirette and Bellini Cross Niagara Falls. My family only read the first two books in the trilogy this week. We loved the books. My daughter loves a Caldecott Medal book and always comments on the pictures. We can't wait to read the third book!
Emily Arnold McCully has written about a variety of topics, including a wonderful historical fiction story about the history of American Sign Language. This story follows the life of Thomas Gallaudet, and his student, Alice. Thomas Gallaudet started the Connecticut Asylum which later became the American School for the Deaf. The story of the school's first student, Alice Cogswell and Thomas Gallaudet is told and illustrated by Emily Arnold McCully in the book My Heart Glow. This is a great historical fiction book that highlights the student-teacher relationship that inspires Thomas Gallaudet to travel to Europe to learn how to best teach his pupil, Alice. Gallaudet recruits teacher, Laurent Clerc to venture back to America to help people who were hearing impaired. The efforts at the Connecticut Asylum lead to American Sign Language.
American Sign Language is not only for people with hearing impairments. The practice of teaching hearing children how to sign was practiced in the 1800s by Thomas Gallaudet who taught his son Edward, to communicate before he could speak. Before our children were able to talk my wife and I taught them American Sign Language (ASL). We chose to teach them not because they were hearing impaired but that it gave them an opportunity to express themselves before they had the ability to say words. Signs like "more", "eat", and "help" proved to be very important. My wife and I are both trained special education teachers. We were not fluent in sign language by any means, but did have some background in it. My wife took a few sign language classes in college to satisfy her foreign language requirements for her teaching degree. I had very little knowledge of sign language. However, we focused on the basics and were able use ASL effectively with our children.
Learning ASL is like learning a foreign language and needs consistent use and repeated exposure. We loved watching the DVDs called Signing Time with our children. They are available at our library and some PBS affiliates show the episodes. Reading My Heart Glow and then watching a Signing Time video would be a great activity to celebrate Emily Arnold McCully's birthday.
Finally, this week my kids and I also read The Banshee by Eve Bunting which was illustrated by Emily Arnold McCully. This book is about the Irish superstition that a banshee will visit a house of someone who is close to death. My daughter was scared, but also very focused, during the reading of this book, and my son was snickering at her fear. The young boy in the story was informed of the superstition by an acquaintance who claimed to have seen the ghostly figure. He was greatly impacted by the boy's description of the banshee and was unable to sleep when he hears the "SCREEE! SCREEE!" coming from outside. He worries about why the banshee has come to his house. He decides to confront the spirit and offers his prized peacock feather in exchange for it to leave his property. My daughter also faced her fear by asking me to read the story again the next morning. She then said, "I'm not scared of this book anymore." Then we were all running around the house trying to scare each other - SCREEE! SCREEE!
Click here for this week's Library Checklist!
1. Charles Blondin Pictures from Niagara Falls Public Library
2. Emily Arnold McCully on Facebook
3. ASL Tales - My Heart Glow Trailer - Facebook
4. High Wire Act - Vimeo
5. American Sign Language Website
6. Text Interviews - Teachers.net, Scholastic