I have a snapshot of myself at age four. I am holding brushes and standing in front of an easel, a freshly painted vase of flowers displayed there. My very first painting. It seems my parents wanted an artist. I never thought I’d be anything else; especially not an author. Writing stories and creating characters that spoke and had lives that seemed real was, to me, an amazing and mysterious ability I would never have.
I wanted to be a painter. When I finished art school I moved from Los Angeles, where I was born, to New York City, which I thought of as the world capital of the arts. I loved New York. My paintings became multi-colored plastic sculptures. To support my family, I designed and directed animated television commercials and kid’s shows. I had always loved cartoons – especially Bugs Bunny – and I found I enjoyed making animated films. Even a thirty-second commercial involved drawing and painting, as well as storytelling, not to mention actors, music and sound effects. In the mid-1960’s I made some films of my own.
Meeting Elizabeth Levy in 1970 changed everything. She was a young writer who had written a mystery for children, and she invited me to illustrate it. The story was called, Something Queer is Going On. It became a series of books, and for more than thirty years later, we were still doing them.
From the first, I loved the picture book medium. It was film and drawing and theater all in one. Encouraged by Liz Levy and a couple of editors, I began trying to write my own stories. I found that, for me, writing was a bit like gardening. I learned to plant ideas in my mind like seeds, and when they sprouted (if they sprouted), to cultivate them, nurture them, and help them grow. I never know what kind of fruit, vegetable, or flower a story will turn out to be. Sunflower or turnip? After writing on various projects for over ten years my first book turned out to be a duck.
Arnold of the Ducks was turned down by seven publishers until I finally got it to the right one. And I became an author!
After over forty years and as many books, I still love my job. Each book seems to be, in some way, essentially different from the others; I have to learn to make each one, and each is a surprise to me. I think that making books, or any kind of art, might also be like mining. Artists dig down into their lives and imaginations and never know what they’ll find there. It’s always an adventure.
Along with writing and illustrating books for children, Mordicai Gerstein is a painter, sculptor, and prize-winning designer and director of animated films.
Born in Los Angeles, Gerstein attended the Chouinard Institute of Art before moving to New York City where he lived and worked for twenty-five years making animated films for television.
In 1971, Mordicai collaborated with author Elizabeth Levy to create the ‘Something Queer is Going On’ series of mystery books for Delacorte Press.
Gerstein began writing and illustrating his own books in 1980.
His books are wide-ranging in subject, style, and the age groups addressed, from contemporary fantasy and Biblical retellings, to biography and absurd alphabets, for preschoolers, high schoolers, and even adults.
Mordicai Gerstein lives in western Massachusetts with his wife, Susan Yard Harris, who is also an illustrator, and their daughter, Risa.
Awards and Honors
- New York Times Notable Children’s Books designation, 2016, for I Am Pan!
- Choices designation, Cooperative Children’s Book Center, and Best Children’s Books selection, Bank Street College of Education, both 2014, both for The First Drawing
- ALA Notable Children’s Books designation, 2010, for A Book!
- BookList Top Ten Books on the Environment for Youth, for The Camping Trip That Changed America by Barb Rosenstock
- Parent’s Choice Award– silver medalist, for The Camping Trip That Changed America by Barb Rosenstock
- California Library Association Beatty Award, for The Camping Trip That Changed America by Barb Rosenstock
- Sydney Taylor Book Award, Association of Jewish Libraries, 2006, for Sholom’s Treasure by Erica Silverman
- Boston Globe-Horn Book Award, 2004, The Man Who Walked between the Towers
- Caldecott Medal, 2004, for The Man Who Walked between the Towers
- Parents’ Choice Award, 2002, for What Charlie Heard
- Notable Children’s Books selection, American Library Association (ALA), 2002, for What Charlie Heard
- Notable Book citation, New York Times, 1998, for Victor
- Best Illustrated Book citation, New York Times, 1998, for The Wild Boy
- Parents’ Choice Award, 1998, for The Wild Boy
- CINE Golden Eagle Award Gold Medal, first prize for children’s entertainment, 1989, for film Beauty and the Beast
- American Film Institute Video Awards, first prize for short video, 1989, for film Beauty and the Beast
- Chicago International Festival of Children’s films, 1989, for film Beauty and the Beast
- Parents’ Choice Award, 1989, for film Beauty and the Beast
- Ten Best-Illustrated Children’s Books, 1987, for The Mountains of Tibet
- Notable Book citations, New York Times Book Review, 1987, for The Mountains of Tibet
- Parents’ Choice Award, 1986, for Tales of Pan
- Outstanding Books citation, New York Times, 1983, for Arnold of the Ducks
- CINE Golden Eagle Award, International Film and Television Festival of New York, 1967, for film The Magic Ring
- Award of the Film Clubs of France, 1966, for film The Room