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Caldecott Winning Illustrators Series: Emily Arnold McCully

By Adrienne Rivera. Jun 9, 2024. 6:19 AM.

Topics: Caldecott Medal, Children's Books

Each year, the Caldecott Medal is given to a children's book of exceptional quality that exhibits the highest level of artistic excellence. The illustrators given the award are selected by a committee and are believed to have substantially contributed to the children's book illustration field that year. The Caldecott Medal is the highest honor an American children's book illustrator can receive. Continuing our Caldecott Medal Winning Book Series, today we take a closer look at Emily Arnold McCully, who was awarded the medal in 1992:

Who is Emily Arnold McCully?

22104miretteEmily Arnold McCully was born in Galesburg, Illinois, and raised in New Jersey. She became interested in reading and drawing at a very young age and, with great practice, overcame her tendency to smudge her work as she is left-handed.

She graduated from Pembroke College, where she wrote and performed in numerous plays. She then went on to study art history at Columbia University.

She got a job in advertising, and though it paid the bills, it wasn’t very stimulating. She filled her downtime at work by drawing and writing. Her first published short story appeared in The Massachusetts Review and was selected for the 1976 edition of the O’Henry Collection: Best Short Stories of the Year.

She continued to submit her art to different agencies and eventually was asked to contribute to a collection of posters for subway ads. This drew the attention of book publishers, which led to the opportunity to illustrate her first book, Sea Beach Express, by George Panetta. Her first book, which she both wrote and illustrated, The Bed Book, was published in 1976. Throughout her career, she has published numerous children’s picture books and non-fiction for children. Her book Mirette on the Highwire won the Caldecott medal in 1992.

Where else have you heard of Arnold McCully?

While Arnold McCully’s career has primarily focused on children’s books, she wrote and produced a play, Brownbrokers, during her time at Pembroke College. Before transitioning to illustration, she published two books for adults: A Craving, about a woman’s struggle with alcoholism, and Life Drawing, a novel about the child of artists striving to find her way through her artistic and personal life.

Examining Arnold McCully’s Artistic Style

McCully’s background in art history greatly impacts her work. She often chooses history as a basis for her children’s books. Before Mirette on the Highwire, most of her work was done in pen and ink. When her publisher urged her to paint the illustrations instead, Arnold McCully had to learn to paint. She redid one illustration for the book thirty-five times until she was satisfied. While she now often paints her illustrations after further developing her style, she often still turns to pen and ink when in need of crisp detail.

Collecting Arnold McCully

Mirette on the Highwire

Mirette on the Highwire, Arnold McCully’s 1992 Caldecott Winner, tells the story of young Mirette, who lives in a French boarding house and is taught how to walk the tightrope by a famous tightrope walker named Bellini. Three Mirette books have been published so far, and a feature film is in the works.

The Grandma Mix-up

the grandma mix upThe Grandma Mix-up, published in 1988, is a charming story of Pip, whose parents go on a trip and leave his two grandmothers to watch him. One grandma is strict, while the other is easy-going, which leads to his two grandmothers arguing about how best to watch him. Pip has to figure out how to tell them he only wants to follow his parents' rules. There are five books in the Grandmas series.

The Bobbin Girl

Arnold McCulley’s love of history is displayed in her 2009 book, The Bobbin Girl. Rebecca works long, hard hours at the cotton mill to help provide for her family.

When some of the girls want to go on strike to protest the conditions and hours, Rebecca is torn between her fear of losing her job and her desire to do what is right for herself and her coworkers.

Browse Caldecott Winners


Adrienne Rivera
Adrienne Rivera received her MFA in fiction from Southern Illinois University Carbondale. She currently lives in southern Indiana.


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