Innocence: A Perspective for Intelligent Reading
Updated: Apr 5
(Bright Wings: Children's Books welcomes Anna Reynold's wise reflection on Mirette on the Highwire by Emily Arnold McCully)
Certain books from childhood are seared into your memory. Usually, they are ones you had in the house and routinely picked up and thumbed through. They may not be stories that we consciously call to mind, but they have formed the landscape of our inner world in subtle ways.
When you encounter one of these books in adulthood, there’s a quiet thrill in rediscovering the images and story impressed on your imagination all these years. Emily Arnold McCully’s Mirette on the Highwire is such a book for me. I vividly remember the captivating illustrations of Mirette in her many colorful dresses falling from the wire again and again as she slowly and painfully learns to walk as though on the air. It is not difficult to understand why the book won the 1993 Caldecott Medal.
Revisiting books from childhood can also be jarring. With the world-weary eyes of an adult, scenes that were once inspiring can now appear concerning or deceptive. Stories that seem straightforward to a child may take on layers of emotional complexity to the adult. Thinking we understand why people act as they do can alter the way we consider a setback or triumph. We can feel foolish for seeing the work in an uncomplicated way, but that is the only way that children can see it.
For good children’s books, we should not let this change in us overshadow the story. The differences in our perception can invite our curiosity. How has our view of the world changed and why? What is the inherent goodness that we saw in the book and how can we rediscover it? The path is learning to see from the perspective of innocence, a childlike experience of the story and of the world. What comes naturally to children requires a kind of learning for the adult. The effort is well worthwhile, as we will see, and it can steer us away from the mire of cynicism and buoy our spirits with hope.
Consider Mirette on the Highwire. The book, set in Paris in the late nineteenth-century, follows Mirette as she helps her mother, Madame Gateau, in the endless work of running a boardinghouse. Mirette spends her time “washing linens, chopping leeks, paring potatoes, and mopping floors.” Already, the adult reading the books might become concerned. Why is she expected to work so much? What kind of childhood is this?
But amid the many daily tasks, Mirette has moments to listen with rapt attention to the tales of the boardinghouse’s many interesting guests: actors, performers, and artists talking about the world and their ideas and experiences. From overhearing these conversations that go on long after the dinner hour, Mirette develops a vision of life beyond the confines of ordinary work and life.
Her vision expands most dramatically, however, with the entrance of a guest who talks little. The mysterious Monsieur Bellini, a “tall, sad-faced stranger,” does not mingle with the others but takes a quiet room and prefers to eat his meals alone. Mirette, flitting about the boardinghouse with her daily duties, catches sight of Bellini balancing on the laundry line and walking across the air.
She is captivated:
Of all the things a person could do, this must be the most magical. Her feet tingled, as if they wanted to jump on the wire beside Bellini.
Bellini is brusque and dismisses Mirette as too young to learn how to become a wire-walker. Irrepressibly persistent as only children can be, Mirette refuses to take no for an answer and tries to teach herself. Impressed with her hard-won progress and emerging ability, Bellini reluctantly agrees to teach her.
If the reader is a mother living in a time of true crime fascination, fractured families, and all the strange deviant behavior facilitated by the internet, this relationship of a taciturn grown man and an impressionable young girl might raise alarms. Mirette is filled with enthusiasm, rising early to complete her chores before her daily lessons. But there is no indication that her mother is aware of her private lessons with a man who refuses to socialize with the other guests of the boardinghouse. Is something amiss?
We should, however, press on. Arnold McCully has created a universe of childlike wonder, not an exact copy of the world as we think we know it. The story does not follow the dark progression we have grown to expect in our cynicism, but instead transforms woundedness with new life. One of the guests recognizes Bellini, and Mirette overhears that he is, in fact, the Great Bellini, a renowned daredevil and performance artist. He has walked above Niagara Falls, stopping to cook an omelet; he has amazed crowds around the world.
Delighted by the revelation, Mirette rushes to Bellini’s room. The image of an unaccompanied young girl bursting into the room of an aging bachelor is enough momentarily to stop the heart of a paranoid, (normal) mother. Yet, what transpires is not Bellini’s destruction of an innocent young girl but instead a moving fictive example of the ability of innocence to heal and to transform. Mirette demands that Bellini let her accompany him on his death-defying world tours, but he refuses. Bellini says simply that he is afraid.
Mirette was astonished. “Afraid?” she said. “But why?”
“Once you have fear on the wire, it never leaves,” Bellini said.
“But you must make it leave!” Mirette insisted.
“I cannot,” said Bellini.
Mirette is crushed and seems to give up her newfound passion for wire-walking. Bellini rightly cannot bear to be seen by Mirette and her innocent eyes. To the undefiled, his cowardice is inexcusable. Of course, people who have lived enough life will nod knowingly and accept that sometimes our dreams don’t come to fruition, sometimes we don’t live up to our promises, sometimes there is pain we submit to and cannot understand. The cold logic of the cynical accepts that once you have fear, it can never be overcome.
However, because of Mirette’s innocent perspective, Bellini no longer accepts defeat. He realizes that if he does not face his fear, he cannot face Mirette. With an agent staying at the boardinghouse, Bellini hatches a plan to resurrect his career with a performance in the middle of the city. In the final moment, it is Mirette who gives him the courage to step onto the wire and walk on to the end.
The triumphant conclusion is only possible because a wounded man encountered the uncompromising vision of an innocent young girl. Just so, the adult revisiting a children’s book can find newfound hope and joy. We are tempted to turn to explanations for evil, excuses for disappointment, and presume that happy endings are only imaginary. How much of this jaded outlook is the result of a cynicism we say is intelligence, a shield to protect ourselves from disappointment? We cannot ignore the harsh realities of life in the world in childish ignorance, but nor should be abandon a childlike wonder at possibility, excellence, and goodness.
And what about our children? Is it wrong to give them a steady diet of such marvelous and imaginative stories of children’s innocence? Are they missing out on learning what the world is really like? What is the world “really like”? We should certainly give our children stories about predators and make them aware of the people who might wish them ill. A child growing older who does not know the guile of flattery, for example, will be in danger. At the same time, we should not be quick to impose our limitations on children who do not yet have them.
We can say, then, that a good children’s book is not a “children’s” book at all, but a good story that offers an innocent perspective: one that benefits the jaded with an opportunity for renewed hope and protects the young from a premature loss of innocence.
We should clarify that a story of innocence is not unrealistic, per se. This can be hard for us to accept because so many of us are entrenched in a cynical worldview. While it is, perhaps, unlikely that innocence overcomes cowardice so spectacularly, there are countless real examples of just this dynamic. How many mothers and fathers and grandparents have been inspired to renewed hope and virtue through the experience of having young children?
The child’s ability to inspire self-sacrifice and virtue is not the result of delusion but of recognition the goodness that is inherent in the world. While there are many sad stories of disorder and disease, there are also many shining examples in the real world of beauty. What stories of innocence insist upon is that evil is not inevitable.
Also, it’s worth noting that Arnold McCully’s Mirette is not spared harsh lessons. In struggling to balance on the wire, she falls, no doubt painfully, time and again. Drawing on her own experiences as a self-described daredevil, Arnold McCully does not fantasize about a life of ease. Mirette’s progress on the wire mirrors Arnold McCully’s unlikely career as a children’s book illustrator, which she pursued through continual effort and countless failures. We should not confuse childlike perspective with the saccharine.
Why should we spend our time revisiting childlike books? We all need stories that imagine the world as better and more luminous than it is right now—or ever was for that matter. No, we should not encourage our children to become the protégé of an emotionally battered, middle-aged man who lives alone. In the fallen and difficult world in which we live, this is naïve and invites disaster. But nor should we push our children to shed the unfettered vision of youth and possibility. In stories about innocence we find respite from cynicism and food for the imagination so that our children have ideals worth striving for.
If you picked up a book you remember fondly from your childhood and were alarmed by it, consider how your perspective has changed and why. Have the intervening years made you wiser? Have you become less trusting? Is there anything you have lost by becoming more cynical? There is much to be gained by relearning to see the world like Mirette; much to be gained by learning to let go of self-limiting fears like Bellini’s that we unknowingly accept without question.
Anna Kaladish Reynold's lives in the great state of Texas with her well-educated husband and their charming children. Anna has a passionate interest in books and all that is childlike and funny. She offers her reflections on children's literature, culture, and mothering at www.inspirevirtue.com.