Sidelights

Mordicai Gerstein is the author and illustrator of dozens of works for young readers, among them the critically acclaimed The Night World, Sleeping Gypsy, and I Am Pan! In addition, Gerstein has provided the artwork for numerous works by other writers, especially those of Elizabeth Levy. Gerstein was awarded the prestigious Caldecott Medal for his self-illustrated picture book The Man Who Walked between the Towers.

Born in 1935 in southern California, Gerstein grew up in East Los Angeles and the San Fernando Valley. Deeply influenced by the stories and books he read as a child, he began drawing illustrations for his favorites. After high school, Gerstein studied painting privately in New Mexico and then attended the Chouinard Art Institute in California. Leaving school in 1956, he worked for the animation studio United Productions of America, painting in his spare time. After getting married, he moved to New York City, continued painting, and also began making his own animated films, Gerstein earned a successful living from animated films, commercial animation, and a weekly cartoon he drew for the Village Voice. Self-taught in the technique of color separation, he uses a wide range of media in his illustrations, which critics have generally praised for their ability to communicate, to show detail, and to capture a sense of movement.

In 1973 Gerstein turned to illustrating, working with Levy on illustrating her popular “Something Queer Is Going On” mystery series, as well as her “Fletcher” mystery series. In the early 1980s he started his authorial career with Arnold of the Ducks, which combines memories of Gerstein’s childhood and the boy-raised-by-wild-animals theme featured in Tarzan by Edgar Rice Burroughs and Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book.

Tales of Pan features the antics of the mischievous half-man/half-goat god of Greek mythology. During the course of this story, Gerstein introduces readers to a number of Pan’s relatives, whose adventures are presented along with the behavior of the prankish deity. Thirty years after the release of that work, Gerstein produced I Am Pan! a collection of stories featuring a graphic-novel format “perfect for packing tons of humor, whimsy, and action on every page,” Amy Shepherd commented in School Library Journal. “The illustrations, a vibrant mixture of furiously loose pen-and-ink lines and dabs of rainbow-bright color, are laid out in boxes that often partition the pages, comics style–or, perhaps, in the style of movie storyboards,” Maria Russo observed in the New York Times Book Review.

Gerstein’s picture books take their inspiration from many quarters, including myths and the Bible, as well as from contemporary events. The passing of the artist’s father led to The Shadow of a Flying Bird: A Legend of the Kurdistani Jews. In this tale, Moses, 120 years old, grouses when God tells him it is finally time for him to die. The old man’s prayers for continued life are barred from heaven, and the Sun and Moon turn a deaf ear to his pleas for more life so that he can finally reach the land of milk and honey. When God must finally take the soul of Moses himself, he sits down and weeps. In Booklist Ilene Cooper called The Shadow of a Flying Bird “a moving fable” and dubbed its illustrations “Chagall-like” and “full of magic.”

Gerstein tackles the story of the Ark in Noah and the Great Flood, an “exuberant picture book,” according to a reviewer for Publishers Weekly. Again combining Jewish legend with a biblical tale, he creates a work that both “children and adults will marvel at,” according to the same critic, who went on to laud the “bold energy” of the oil-painting illustrations. Horn Book reviewer Jennifer M. Brabander was pleased that Gerstein did not feel compelled to invest his Noah with “a trendy environmental or moralistic slant,” instead treating the tale as the “blockbuster of a story” it is.

The Old Country was inspired by tales Gerstein’s maternal grandparents told about growing up in the Ukraine, as well as by his father’s childhood in Poland. The story concerns Gisella, a young girl living in a war-torn nation who mysteriously trades bodies with a sly fox. Separated from her human family, Gisella begins an arduous journey accompanied by a woodland sprite. In The Old Country, “Gerstein explores whether evil is inherent in the world, the costs of war, and the existence of magic,” observed School Library Journal contributor Susan Hepler. According to Horn Book critic Joanna Rudge Long, “wise questions are raised but–wisely–remain open; that the subtext concerning man’s inhumanity remains a subtext makes this an even more thought-provoking and engaging fantasy.”

Like many who have heard it, Gerstein was captivated by the intriguing story of the so-called Savage of Aveyron, a boy found naked and abandoned in the woods of the south of France in 1800. With no language and lacking most human social skills, the boy had clearly been living in the wild alongside animals. Under the tutelage of a doctor, the boy was force-fed civilization and renamed Victor. Tragically, he did not lose his wild ways: Never able to master speech, his short life “was spent on the cusp of a society that could neither fully form nor accept him,” according to Kathryn Harrison, writing in the New York Times Book Review. Gerstein produced both the picture book The Wild Boy and the novel Victor: A Novel Based on the Life of the Savage of Aveyron to explore this fascinating tale.

Jennifer A. Fakolt, reviewing Victor in School Library Journal, described the book as a “dark, often complex novel for older readers that is well worth the time, effort, and thought.” Reviewing The Wild Boy in Horn Book, Mary M. Burns lauded the picture book, noting that it “has a haunting, wistful charm captured in a minimal space through a well-honed poetic text accompanied by delicately limned, impressionistic illustrations.” A critic for Kirkus Reviews, while writing about the picture book, also captured the essence of the novel’s appeal. Noting that the wild boy never really gives up the wildness at his center, the reviewer concluded this is “a fact that will rivet children.”

Gerstein has turned his hand to biography in picture books such as What Charlie Heard, about American composer Charles Ives, and Sparrow Jack, which profiles English immigrant John Bardsley. In the former work, Gerstein provides details such as the sounds Ives might have heard as a child, his efforts in high school to compose, and the competing needs of his job as an insurance agent and his desire to create music in this “inspired picture-book biography,” as the same critic typified it. A Kirkus Reviews writer also lauded Gerstein’s effort, calling What Charlie Heard, an “unusual and joyful treatment of an unusual and joyful subject.”

Sparrow Jack features the little-known story of Bardsley, a man who settled in Philadelphia during the mid-nineteenth century. When the greenery in his adopted city was devoured by an invasion of leaf-eating inchworms, Bardsley devised a simple solution—importing worm-loving sparrows from England—that, despite the skepticism of some citizens in the city of brotherly love, proved to be effective. “In Gerstein’s skilled hands,” according to a critic in Publishers Weekly, “this odd historical tidbit … shapes up into a funny and engrossing tale.”

Gerstein’s The Man Who Walked between the Towers is a memorial to the World Trade Center buildings that were destroyed on September 11, 2001. Based on an actual event, The Man Who Walked between the Towers recounts a daring 1974 stunt performed by Philippe Petit, a French tightrope walker. Disguised as construction workers, Petit and several of his friends suspended a cable between the twin towers; the next day Petit performed tricks high above the New York City streets. The Man Who Walked between the Towers received strong reviews, with several critics complimenting Gerstein’s playful yet dramatic illustrations. Wendy Lukehart in School Library Journal noted that “the vertiginous views paint the New York skyline in twinkling starlight and at breathtaking sunrise. Gerstein captures his subject’s incredible determination, profound skill, and sheer joy.”

An incredible exploit is also at the heart of the whimsical guidebook How to Bicycle to the Moon to Plant Sunflowers: A Simple but Brilliant Plan in Twenty-four Easy Steps. Focusing on a youngster who wishes to beautify the drab-looking moon, the work provides step-by-step directions for reaching the satellite by constructing a giant slingshot made of truck inner tubes and a tightrope from garden hoses. “The … instructions are ingeniously detailed and genuinely childlike, brimming with energy and an unfettered mix of real and pseudo information,” Joanna Rudge Long stated in Horn Book, and Booklist reviewer Carolyn Phelan observed that the “often-amusing ink drawings, brightened with color washes, illustrate every moment of the adventure.”

In Leaving the Nest, a “cheery ode to adventurousness,” according to Horn Book reviewer Christine M. Heppermann, a series of mishaps brings together an assortment of young creatures. As a baby squirrel peers from the safety of a tree, a blue jay attempts its first flight, unfortunately crashing to the ground, where it is spotted by a curious kitten whose owner has just learned to ride her bike. In attempting to return the bird to its nest, the young cyclist climbs a ladder but grows too frightened to descend, prompting a rescue by her mother. “Using speech bubbles–the book’s only text–and lush illustrations, Gerstein records the unfolding drama,” Heppermann noted, and Kate McClelland stated in School Library Journal that Gerstein’s “warm palette and the energetic line of the … illustrations convey both the thrill of curiosity and the certain security of home.”

Animals also figure prominently in You Can’t Have Too Many Friends! and The Night World. The first story, a retelling of the French folktale “Drakestail,” concerns Duck’s efforts to retrieve some prize-winning jellybeans that were loaned to the king. “Gerstein’s sunny, cartoon-style illustrations add to this version’s upbeat mood,” Booklist contributor Kay Weisman remarked. In the second tale, a boy and his pet cat awake early and explore their house just before sunrise. According to a Publishers Weekly reviewer, “Gerstein paints the two as black shapes on soft gray; as they creep through the house, sleeping family members and bulky pieces of furniture create graceful, abstract compositions.”

Young audiences are introduced to a wacky cast of literary characters in Gerstein’s A Book, an imaginative tale that may create “a deeper awareness for the art of reading and an appreciation for the possibilities and openness of storytelling,” according to Booklist critic Ian Chipman. Centering on the exploits of a pig-tailed youngster who travels through the pages hoping to discover a story that suits her personality, A Book touches on nursery rhymes, mysteries, adventure tales, and works of historical fiction. “Gerstein is playing at meta-fiction at a higher level than most authors do for this target group,” a Publishers Weekly contributor maintained. Other critics applauded Gerstein’s unusual illustrative techniques. “The visual perspective locates readers where they actually are vis-a-vis the physical book: looking down on the action from a bird’s eye view.”

Gerstein also celebrates the creative process in his picture books The First Drawing and The Sleeping Gypsy. The former title travels back 30,000 years as a prehistoric youth relives his encounter with a wooly mammoth by depicting its image on a cave wall. In the latter work, nineteenth-century French painter Henri Rousseau communicates with the characters from a dream before producing one of his most haunting works. Discussing The First Drawing in Booklist, Ilene Cooper noted that Gerstein’s pen-and-ink, acrylic, and colored pencil artwork “has the buoyant feeling of discovery and is clever in the way it turns imaginings into pictures.” Weisman noted of The Sleeping Gypsy that Gerstein’s “acrylic-and-digital artwork pays homage to Rousseau with eerie and meditative spreads.”

Although Gerstein invests much time creating the artwork for his tales, he still occasionally illustrates works for other authors. Gerstein served as the translator and illustrator of To Paint the Portrait of a Bird, a whimsical work by French poet and screenwriter Jacques PrĂ©vert. To Paint the Portrait of a Bird features Gerstein’s softly colored images “that reflect the tension between containment and unrestrained imagination at the story’s heart,” noted Booklist critic Jennifer Mattson. Applesauce Season, a picture book by Eden Ross Lipson, explores a tasty tradition that binds three generations of an urban family. “Employing a foreshortened perspective, Gerstein tilts cutting boards, pots and the like our way, the better for us to see … how each step of sauce cookery is accomplished,” Leonard S. Marcus commented in the New York Times Book Review.

After more than four decades as an illustrator of children’s books, Gerstein still manages to find inspiration in the world around him. “I’m always looking for things that puzzle and disturb or amuse me, things that are fun to make pictures of,” Gerstein stated in his Caldecott acceptance speech. “I make books for people, most of who happen to be children, and I try to address the most essential parts of all of us.”