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Jeffrey Brown speaks with longtime writer and illustrator of children's books, Mordicai Gerstein, who won the 2004 Caldecott Medal for "The Man Who Walked Between the Towers," a book about the French aerialist Philippe Petit, who strode a tightrope between the World Trade Center towers in 1974.
"Once there were two towers, side by side."
The two towers at the World Trade Center are no more, but a new book for children by Mordicai Gerstein brings them to life by evoking a fantastic and actual moment in their history.
"The Man Who Walked Between the Towers" tells of the day in 1974 when a young Frenchman named Philippe Petit, aided by friends, disguised himself as a construction worker, used a bow and arrow to send a strong cord across the expanse of the two towers, and then walked a quarter of a mile up in the sky for almost an hour. Petit was arrested, but a judge sentenced him to perform in parks for children.
The book has been awarded the 2004 Caldecott medal, given by the American Library Association for the most distinguished American picture book for children.
You know, when you make a mark on a piece of paper, one line, you create a whole new world.
Mordicai Gerstein, age 68, lives and works in Northampton, Massachusetts, and travels often to schools– here, Stonybrook School in Kinnelon, New Jersey. He's written and illustrated more than 30 books for children. Mordecai Gerstein, welcome, and congratulations.
Thank you very much.
This is a book about a magical moment in the history of the world towers. Why, after 9/11, did you want to write this for children?
Well, 9/11 made me think about the towers, and the fact that I lived in New York for a long time, while they were being built. In fact, I had a studio that was ripped out, along with the whole neighborhood, to put the towers in. I saw them go up. I lived with them, running past them in the morning. And they were like part of my furniture.
And when they went down, I started to think about the towers, and I remembered Philippe Petit's walk, and remembered that I used to see him perform on the street back in the '70s at that time, and that he was a brilliant street performer, great juggler, great unicylcist. He did amazing things. And when the towers went down, I remembered Philippe's walk. I found an old "New Yorker" with a profile of him in it, and I started to write the story.
Did you feel it was important to address children on this particular subject, somehow?
Writing for children is my… that's my medium, you know, and the medium is the picture book, which is a very particular kind of book. I try to give children what I would give anybody, you know. I become interested in something. I find something fascinating. It has to fascinate me, and then I want to give it to them.
You really play up the whimsy and the sense of play and the sense of freedom.
I love this aspect of what Philippe does. I mean, he's a trickster. He defies a kind of reality. He defies the possible. He does the impossible. He does the amazing. And when he does that, it's an act of such optimism. You know, you walk out there, that's very optimistic, you know, that you're going to make it to the other side. And he does.
But at the same time, this sense of mischief which is in the children's book is balanced against this tragedy in the background that we all know about.
Right. Well, I wanted… I mean, another aspect of doing the book is celebrating the towers and doing something about them for kids that show what they were like, that showed what it was like to live with them, you know, and what they felt like and how big they were, because the image that we're left with now, when you think of the towers, you know, it's the image of them burning, you know, the image of the smoke coming out of them. And you don't see them otherwise, you know. The kids haven't seen them that way, you know, as they were. And so this book celebrates that, too. So it celebrates the towers, I think, and also this remarkable event and this remarkable man.
Why don't you read a little bit for us so we get a sense of this walk in the sky that you've written about?
Great, I'd love to. "Philippe put on his black shirt and tights. He picked up his 28-foot balancing pole. All his life he had worked to be here, to do this. As the rising sun lit up the towers, he stepped out onto the wire. Out to the very middle he walked, as if he were walking on the air itself. Many winds whirled up from between the towers, and he swayed with them. He could feel the towers breathing. He was not afraid. He felt alone and happy and absolutely free.
A woman coming from the subway might have been the first to see him: 'Look, someone walking on a wire between the towers.' Everyone stopped and looked up. They gasped and stared. It was astonishing. It was terrifying and beautiful. A quarter of a mile up in the sky, someone was dancing."
Someone was dancing in the sky.
Yeah. I just think that's wonderful.
The other day you read this to children in school. What was their reaction?
They sat there open-mouthed and with delight and amazement. And the question always is, is this really true? Did this really happen?
It's a little hard to believe, huh?
Yes. Yeah, it is. But they just drink it in.
But how do you reach younger children? What do the words have to do? What do the pictures have to do?
I think the words have to be clear and direct. I think the pictures have to be engaging and full of feeling. And I think everybody's going to be able to relate to it, children and… I want older people, too, you know, to be able to connect with what I do.
But aside from the fact that it is illustrated, you don't see a big difference between writing for adults and writing for children?
Essentially, no. I want to do something beautiful. I want to do something amazing, and that's full of wonderment and that's going to provoke good questions.
The book is "The Man Who Walked Between the Towers." Mordicai Gerstein, thank you. And again, congratulations.
Thank you very much. It's a pleasure being here.
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