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boy and girl wearing knit crowns looking at reading picture books with mother
Maria Salvadore
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Maria Salvadore

A conversation with Emily Arnold McCully

Emily Arnold McCully has taken readers on a family Picnic, introduced The Queen of the Diamond and a dog named Strongheart. She may be best known as the Caldecott Medalist who took readers to Paris to view the city along with Mirette on the High Wire.

I heard Ms. McCully speak recently at a meeting where she agreed to answer some questions about her work.

Tell us about your childhood and its influence on when — and why — you discovered that you were an artist. Were you self-taught or was any formal training involved?

My parents had met in college in Illinois as actors and my mother was also a trained singer. When he graduated, my father was hired to write and produce programs for the new medium, radio. The newlyweds lived in New York City. So, although he wanted to write plays for the theater, he began working for hire and did so for the rest of his life. Similarly, I was encouraged to be a “commercial artist” from the time I began to draw, at three, so I could support myself and not have to rely on a man. This lesson came from my mother, frustrated because she hadn’t pursued a career and because my father’s presence in our lives was increasingly erratic.

I drew all the time, but my main ambition was to be a writer, as often happens to those who read voraciously. Life around me always seemed to be an unfolding drama — sometimes starring me, but more often one I quietly observed. I was “class artist” which meant making posters, backdrops, murals, portraits, etc., to an exhausting degree. I was therefore practicing all the time, but without formal training. By the time I got to college I had put drawing (work) pretty much aside in favor of studying and acting (fun).

What made you decide to become an illustrator?

When I graduated, and had to find a job, I came up against my lack of training either in art or in proper typing. That was OK; I scorned typing jobs. But they were the only entry for girls. I ended up, not in publishing, but on the fringes of advertising in a paste-up studio and a mat cutting room. It was the Mad Men era, but I was treated kindly and learned about type design, among other things. That prompted me to make a portfolio of book covers, ads and so forth and take it around to art directors, who were also kind. In the meantime, I got an MA in art history.

Were you specifically drawn to children’s books?  Why (or why not)?

I was still intent on writing. Perhaps illustration would support me while I wrote stories and novels.

Little by little, illustrating jobs dribbled in, beginning with a spot for Harpers Magazine, housed in the same venerable building as Harper & Row Publishers, founded 1848. Next was a book jacket for Harper, followed by ads for antidepressants, and stories for Boys Life.  After a couple of years, I was hired by a [New Jersey] radio station to do posters to be placed in subway cars. They wanted images of children playing. I did three, the first showing children ice skating. It went up in the subway and after five days, a strike was called. The subways shut down. My big break had fizzled!

Astonishingly, a new editor, again at Harper, (brought on to replace the legendary Ursula Nordstrom) had seen the poster and tracked me down. She wanted me to illustrate a little book called Sea Beach Express (the name of a subway line). It called for black and white drawings, just what I had been making all my life.  When that job was finished she had another manuscript for me. My naive plan was actually working: I could write fiction and earn a living illustrating children’s books. While I had not ever aspired to doing that, the challenges were appealing. My deficiencies as an illustrator seemed to be less important than my ability to further a narrative, do research when necessary and imagine a picture book as a little proscenium theater or a movie to be projected by page turns.

How important is visual research in the development of your art?

Research is still very important, the more I work on historical stories. I want to try to evoke an earlier time, not just refer to it. Art history has been my studio teacher, as well. That began in childhood, with a book of American Twentieth Century paintings that I pored over for years. Their muscular, nitty gritty approach to reality was exactly what I wanted. I rejected anything “pretty.”

Mirette on the High Wire won a Caldecott Medal. The artistic style is subtly different than its predecessors. Talk about how your style changed for this book and how it continues to evolve.

The style of Mirette is really due to Nanette Stevenson, who was then art director at Putnam.I presented her with pen and ink sketches (colored in). “You have to paint this book,” she said. A story set in Paris in the age of Impressionists and pot-Impressionists couldn’t be drawn.

I knew she was right, but that didn’t mean I could do it! Drawing a scene or a composition automatically ordered it, in my experience. I didn’t have the technique for creating foreground, background, light, shadow, detail, etc., with just brushes and color. I finally tackled it by practicing and allowing myself to fail, as I had as a small child, after my mother suggested I try to “get it right” when I drew something. After 35 tries, I settled on a way to go forward with one scene. Also, just before I turned it in, I repainted most of the book. It was all quite fraught!

After that I painted quite a few books and enjoyed refining my style. But the reproduction was never satisfactory — too fuzzy — and I often reverted to drawing.

Mirette has become a short film and is in the works for a feature length film. How were you involved in this process? What do you think of your book being turned into a different medium? What is gained or lost in the translation?

So far, the movie MIRETTE has been an unalloyed joy. The director, Helen O’Hanlon, treated the book with near reverence and me with great respect. I approved of everything along the way and was invited to participate in a weeklong shoot in the Dordogne. Being there, with the dedicated crew, the brilliant cast in a lovely medieval French town, was blissful, one of those times that seems to float above ordinary life

The film only enhances my story, as narrative and as metaphor.  With wonderful actors, the relationship between Mirette and Bellini becomes palpable. And nothing can beat the sheer terror of looking down from the high wire!

Helen is trying to raise money now for a feature. It will depart from the book- it has to- but I hope that Dixie Egerickx, now shooting a remake of The Secret Garden, will again play Mirette.

Recently, you’ve written and illustrated books about real places and people. Does this satisfy your creativity in the same way that purely imagined stories do?

I am very much satisfied by treating historical subjects. It’s fun to create solely from my imagination, but I don’t feel the world needs that from me. I do think children need to know history, to feel its importance and immediacy, to find patterns in events and learn ways to judge them. Most of all, they need to be citizens, sharing responsibilities with all the other children growing up in a nation with a history.

Needing to express myself is different than being on a mission, but telling stories from history involves both.

What’s next for Emily Arnold McCully?

My biography of Ada Byron Lovelace will be out from Candlewick early next year. It’s been really interesting and also fun to write about a gothic life that ended too soon, nearly forgotten for 100 years. Ada was a fascinating girl and woman who inhabited a milieu tI’ve always been drawn to.

I continue to turn out early readers for Holiday House, mostly featuring an intrepid little engineer elephant. I’m also working on nonfiction picture books and a long Civil War spy story. Right now I am launching this summer’s vegetable and flower gardens and itching to get out on a tennis court.

Visit Emily McCully at her official website (opens in a new window).

About the Author

Reading Rockets’ children’s literature expert, Maria Salvadore, brings you into her world as she explores the best ways to use kids’ books both inside — and outside — of the classroom.

Publication Date
May 31, 2018

Related Topics

Children’s Books