Emily Arnold McCully, Galesburg’s Own

by Terry Hogan

Probably many of you have heard or read about Galesburg’s own Olmsted Ferris who took popcorn from Illinois to England and popped it for Queen Victoria. She liked it, and it became very popular in England and Europe. I first read of it in Calkin’s "They Broke the Prairie". However, have you heard of the retelling of the story for children? The book is entitled "Popcorn at the Palace". But it also has another connection with Galesburg. Emily Arnold McCully wrote the book and Galesburg is her hometown.

If you don’t have young children or grandchildren, you may not have heard of Emily. But she has won several awards for her writings. Perhaps one way to gauge success, or perhaps name recognition, is to do an Internet search. When I typed her full name in, "Google" came back with 4,900 "hits". She is more than a little known.

Emily was born in Galesburg in 1939 and lived in Galesburg on North Prairie and Cherry Streets. She owes the location of her birth due to a change in her father’s jobs. Her father, Wade, decided to leave his job with NBC in New York City. He accepted a position to become the "writer/impresario" of the Knox College Centennial observances in 1937. With the start of WWII, Wade went to Washington, D.C. but Emily and her sister, also born in Galesburg, stayed in Galesburg during the war. After the war ended, her father returned to work for NBC and the family left Galesburg and rejoined him in Long Island. Emily’s Internet biography indicates that her mother was exceptional for the time, as well. Emily’s mother was an actress and a singer, as well as a mother.

Emily spent her early, formative years in Galesburg. Perhaps these early experiences in Galesburg helps her to write and illustrate her numerous children’s books. She seems to have been surrounded by Galesburg folks with some claim of literary abilities. Her parents knew Ernest Elmo Calkins who, among his many successes, found time to write Galesburg’s and Knox College’s biography "They Broke the Prairie." She and her parents also knew another Galesburg born writer, of Swedish descent, who gained some recognition as a Pulitzer Prize winner. It seems that Carl Sandburg would visit the family when he was in New York. With a background like that, it is hard to imagine that she would dare to do anything but write!

Emily visited Galesburg a few years ago. The trip was brought about by the publication of her book "Popcorn at the Palace" in 1997. Given the tie-in with Galesburg as the source of the book’s storyline, she was invited to return to Galesburg and speak at the public library.

Her writing talents are accompanied by artistic abilities, as well. In fact, she apparently backed her way into the writing of children’s stories, after being the illustrator for a number of other books. She now writes and illustrates her own books. Frankly, her books are worth their price just for the beautiful illustrations. Take a look at the illustrations in "Mirette on the High Wire". The soft watercolors are a pleasant contrast to the harsh, brilliant colors that our culture seems to think are necessary for children. According to published materials, Emily wrote this book in three weeks.

Emily tells the story that the girl’s name, "Mirette", is one she made up, or at least thought she did. Emily was going to use a French word "Mereille", which means "gooseberry". However, she found that Mereille was difficult for non-French speaking Americans to pronounce. Thus she invented "Mirette" which she believed would be easier. However, as luck will have it, when the book was published in France, the girl’s name was changed from "Mirette" to "Juliette". "Mirette" apparently has a slightly "off-color" meaning in French.

According to published information, which may be a little dated, Emily has published at least 33 books for young folks, as well as some books for adults. She has also illustrated more than 85 books for other writers.

I figured that anyone who writes and paints as gently as she does, would take the time to respond to a letter. I was right. (I often am not.) However, she did write and answer my questions. She was quite gracious. Given the current behavior of so many "public figures", it is reassuring that kindness and consideration, although apparently out of style, have not been forgotten by all.

The popcorn story that had its kernel of inspiration in Galesburg is not uniquely based on fact. Emily has also written another children’s’ book entitled "Leo the Magnificat" (1996) that is based on a true story concerning a real cat, named Leo, who lived in Louisville, Kentucky.

Another interesting feature of her recent children’s books is that they feature girls. If you have a daughter or granddaughter, or if you just like really nice illustrations, you ought to check her books out as possible gifts. "Popcorn at the Palace" has direct Galesburg ties, as does the author. You can read the book to the child and tell her about the Galesburg connection. Add a little oral history with the book.

Take the time. Read her a story. The pressures of the moment can wait. What do you want to be remembered for, a clean house, a successful job, or the grandparent who took time to read stories?

Emily Arnold McCully, one of Galesburg’s own.

A Few Books Written and Illustrated by Emily Arnold McCully:

Popcorn at the Palace (1997) Browndeer Press (ages 6 to 10)

Amazing Felix

An Outlaw Thanksgiving

Ballot Box Battle

Beautiful Warrior: The Legend of the Nun’s Fung Fu

Crossing the New Bridge

First Snow

Four Hungry Kittens

Grandmas at Bat

Grandmas at the Lake

Grandma Mix-Up

Leo the Magnificat

Little Kit or, the Industrious Flea Circus

Mirette & Bellini Cross Niagara Falls

Mirette on the High Wire

Mouse Practice


Pirate Queen


Starring Mirette and Bellini

The Bobbin Girl

The Orphan Singer