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When the man in the black suit asks for a room in the boardinghouse and requests solitude, no one questions it, until they find out he is the great Bellini, the high-wire performer.

Mirette is the first to see him on a wire hung low over the alley and pleads to learn the skill. Even though he discourages her, "Once you start, your feet are never happy again on the ground," she practices patiently. She is devastated to find out that the master is no longer performing because he is afraid, "Once you have fear on the wire, it never leaves."When Bellini realizes Mirette's disappointment, he agrees to perform again. High above the street with a spotlight on him, he freezes in fear. Mirette reminds him of his own advice: "Never let your eyes stray . . . Think only of the wire, and of crossing to the end."

In writing and illustrating "Mirette" McCully has stepped out of her role as illustrator of wordless picture books or ones with simple text such as "Picnic," which won a Christopher Award given to books that "have achieved artistic excellence . . . affirming the highest values of the human spirit."

"Mirette on the High Wire" is set in Paris 100 years ago. The watercolors are vibrant and detailed, particularly the steamy kitchen of widow Gateau, the scenes where Bellini is framed by the window and Mirette scrubbing a black-and-white checkered floor with a cloud casting a black shadow on her.

Besides accuracy in pictures, McCully uses some terminology to ground the book such as the troupe of players, acrobats, jugglers, actors and mimes who enjoy their kidney stews.

The final page, a small girl gazing at a poster or affiche advertising the feats of "Mirette and Bellini: Wire Walkers" is testimony of McCully's impact without text.

The publishers are advertising this book as appropriate for ages 4 through 7. I strongly disagree! Most 4-year-olds will not be able to understand the sensitive nature of the theme nor be able to relate to the setting, which is an integral part of the story.

My recommendation for "Mirette on the High Wire" is ages 6 through 10 and beyond. There's a message here that is universal, perhaps for all ages.

McCully has many books for children, including five wordless picture books featuring a lovable mouse family: "Picnic," "First Snow," "School," "New Baby" and "The Christmas Gift." She has written and illustrated three "I Can Read" books about grandmothers: "Grandma Mix-Up," "Grandmas at the Lake" and "Grandmas at Bat."

McCully has also written for adults and received grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and New York State Council on the Arts. Her book, "A Craving," was nominated for the American Book Award.

- WHAT THE KIDS THINK - Even though the Caldecott Award is selected by adults with their own criteria, the child reader does need consideration if the book is to have lasting value. "Mirette on the High Wire" has received mixed professional reviews, many saying that it is a surprising choice and not a "favorite" or "not the most appealing for the 7-and-younger set." Others say it is a satisfying experience.

I went to a group of third-graders in Mr. Moulton's room at Highland Park Elementary, Salt Lake City School District, to get their views of the new Caldecott winner. There was unanimous agreement among this group of 8- and 9-year-olds: they enjoyed the book, both text and illustrations. Some wanted to linger and talk about the story. But none asked for it to be read again. That's a real clue for me!

Of the 14 who chose to write about "Mirette on the High Wire," most identified with the story or text. Matthew Peterson said, "It has good illustrations . . . they look real." Laurie Weight liked the part where Mirette helped Bellini cross the wire. Lauren Pascoe picked up on the subtleties in the art, "I thought that the man in black was a wicked villain, but he was not. He was a tightrope walker."

Adam Jackson was one of many who liked the "happy ending." Kate Burton said, "I think the little girl looking at the poster wants to do it, too." Alisha Archuleta agreed, "I think she wanted to be like Mirette." Dan Downing also thought that the ending was special and Amy Kircher wrote, "My favorite part is where she becomes famous."

David Horman picked up on the theme. "I think this book tells you to help people not be afraid." If any applause can be given for a book, Hannah Cannon gave it. "I felt like I was on a high wire myself!"

So there is the opinion of one group of children. If your class has critiques, I'd like to hear about them.