Mordicai Gerstein, Author   Home | Biography | Speeches and Articles | Books | Appearances | Contact
rticles and Speeches

2004 Caldecott Acceptance Speech | Globe–Hornbook Award Acceptance Speech | New England Booksellers Association Speech | American Jewish Library Association Speech | Articles

2004 Caldecott Acceptance Speech

I think that being human is probably the most difficult, incomprehensible, and sometimes seemingly impossible thing in the world. And I believe that all of us who live the life of a human being every day, bravely, as well as we possibly can with the cards we’re dealt, should answer our ringing phones one morning and hear thousands of librarians cheering for us, telling us we’ve won the great prize. This should happen to everyone, as it seems to have happened to me.
I say seems because even now, months later, it’s still hard to believe that I’m standing here filled with gratitude and a feeling that if I were to lift both feet off the ground at the same time, I would not fall.
It’s a tiny bit of the disbelief that struck me dumb when Kathy East called me with the news. When I was finally able to speak much to my surprise I heard myself say, “I have always loved librarians!”
And it’s true. Ever since my first visit to the Wabash Avenue branch of the Los Angeles public library when I was four and a half and took home my first book, To Think That I saw it on Mulberry Street, by a Doctor named Suess, I have loved librarians and libraries and books. Books are still one of the greatest of all human inventions. In a book you can hold the imagination of another person in the palm of your hand and explore it at your leisure – true magic. I am very grateful to be part of this magical world of books, and specifically, of books for children.
I am often asked, “How do you write for children? How do you know what they’ll like?” I’m always surprised by the question because I’d never given it much thought. I feel as if I’m being asked: How do you write for squirrels? Or wombats? The shocking truth is: I myself was once a child. In fact, all of us, without exception, either are children or have been children. Many people seem to forget that children are ourselves as we were and as we are and not a different species. Maybe it’s as Wallace Stevens wrote:
“There is so little that is close and warm.
it is as if we were never children.”
I think being in touch with your childhood keeps you in touch with what really matters to you, and who you really are. My earliest years are still as vivid and important as anything that has happened since. I was surprised to learn that this is not true for everyone. Tragically, many people have had childhoods best forgotten. But essentially, I’m sure I haven't changed much since I was four.
I have a snapshot of myself then, smiling proudly, brush in hand, beside my first easel, on which stands my very first painting – a bowl of flowers. Well over sixty years later I am still at it. Same smile.
My dear mother Fay, now long gone, cut photos of famous paintings from Life Magazine and made a scrapbook museum for me, with artists ranging from William Blake and Michelangelo to Picasso and Cezanne. Lying on my belly on the floor, I studied those pictures over and over and over again till they all became part of me. I’ve found that the books I loved then, I still loved when I later read them to my children; they were still important, still meaningful to me as an adult. Alice in Wonderland is almost everything I love in a book: hilarious, scary, full of surprises and bizarre characters, all in a strange and bewildering world. It could be the story of my life. As a child I was interested in almost everything and as an old man I am interested in absolutely everything. And one of the things that interest me most is that special, overwhelming feeling that I remember first having when I saw the full moon for the first time - wonder. I love books that provoke the sense of wonder and wonderment. “From wonder into wonder, existence opens.”
So writes poet Witter Bynner in his translation of Lao Tzu.
Remember being a child, and the full moon will always provoke wonder.
The important question for me has been: how do you write anything? As a painter, animated-film maker and illustrator, I came late to writing, and it was to make picture books, a fascinating art form, which is mostly for children. And so I’m always looking for things that puzzle and disturb or amuse me, things that are fun to make pictures of. I make books for people,, most of whom happen to be children, and I try to address the most essential parts of all of us.
In creating a picture book I try to make the sentences and pictures as clear and simple as possible. I feel, paradoxically, that in the simple and obvious, one can find the utmost complexity and ambiguity. What could be simpler that a soap bubble? And what could be more mysterious and complicated?
My books come from many sources: myths and legends, biographies, and my imagination. The Man Who Walked Between the Towers, came off the streets and out of the sky.
In the 1970s I saw a young Frenchman perform on the sidewalks of my New York neighborhood. Philippe Petit was a high wire walker and unicyclist whose juggling was as witty and full of surprises as Charlie Parker’s solos. When I picked up the New York Times one day and saw that Philippe had walked a wire between the towers, I was thrilled to my toes, and thought it was one of the most wonderful things anyone had ever done.
Later, in 1987, a New Yorker article about Philippe reminded me of his walk and I started playing with a story about a boy who bicycles to the moon on a tightrope. My editor told me that it was simply not believable, which surprised me. It seemed quite plausible to me, but I put the story away.
Though I no longer lived in New York, on September 11, and lost no friends or relatives, I experienced the destruction of the towers in a personal way like all New Yorkers. I still consider myself a New Yorker, just as I still consider myself a Californian, and now a whatever you call people from Massachusetts. The towers were part of my home, my furniture. Over the years I’d seen them in different light and weather from different parts of the city. I’d passed them on my morning runs, and painted watercolors of them in the evenings. The idea came to me that instead of concocting a fictional parallel to Philippe’s walk, I should tell the story of what actually happened; it was less believable and therefore more truly wonder-ful!
The text came to me quickly. When Roaring Brook agreed to publish it, I learned that Philippe was about to publish his own book for adults about his walk, “To Reach the Clouds”. I was able to get an advance copy and found that it was a fascinating, hilarious, wonderfully written and moving true account of a young man’s years long obsession and struggle to carry out something beautiful and impossible.
Best of all for me, the book was full of photos and diagrams that were invaluable for making my pictures. The story of Philippe Petit’s walk is, for me, one that addresses the question, what is a human being? He proposes that we are creatures who can leave fear behind and walk through the air – that life can be exciting and fun and may be lived in learning to do the impossible – that the human imagination has no bounds. For Philippe, the Towers were there for no other reason than to provide two anchors for his wire, just as for a spider the most magnificent statue is only a place to spin a web. Entrepreneurial and architectural imagination created the towers, Philippe’s imagination transformed them into his plaything, and other imaginations destroyed them; showed them to be as ephemeral as Philippe’s walk. When I told Philippe that I thought the human imagination was the most frighteningly powerful force in the world, he thought a moment and asked, “What about the imagination of a centipede?” It’s a wonderful question, one that makes me even more interested in the imagination of a Philippe Petit.
Books take us to places we will never go, and let us be people and creatures we can never be. I didn’t want to just tell the story of the walk – I wanted the book to be .the walk between cardboard covers. I think of a picture book as a hand-held theater, entered by opening it, and operated by turning its pages – no batteries, you don’t have to plug it in; I wanted this book to cause real vertigo, to put the reader, child or adult, – and of course myself – on the wire.
I admit there are differences between adults and children, wonderful and often maddening ones. Children do need adults; I think it’s children that make us become the adults they need. We must give them love and nourishment and books, which, as we know, are part of a healthy diet. My intention in all my books is to give children just what I want to give everyone: something beautiful, magical, funny, and soulful: something that provokes good questions: questions about what an incomprehensible, beautiful and seemingly impossible thing it is to be a human being in this incomprehensible, beautiful and seemingly impossible world. What could be more difficult and more wonderful?
So here I am, at sixty-eight, still that child standing proudly and happily beside his easel. I simply have a bit more experience, and so maybe - hopefully - I can be him better. And I still believe, more than ever, that life should be fun!
And what fun it is, after all the countless hours alone in my studio talking to myself, to be standing here telling all this to you. I want to first thank the members of the committee for honoring my book, and then all of you, for listening. My heartfelt thanks to Simon Boughten, my editor and publisher who embraced The man Who Walked Between the Towers wholeheartedly, and to Filomena Tuosto, our designer who helped make the book as effective as it is. My continuing thanks to Joan Raines, my longtime agent, champion, fairy godmother and friend who sent the book to Simon, despite my telling her, after two turndowns, to put it away and to forget it because I wanted to make books that everyone wanted. Joan, sadly, could not be here today, but she wept like a baby when she heard the news of the award, and that made me cry, too.
My thanks always to my dear wife and love, Susan Yard Harris, and our dear and beautiful, daughter Risa, for their love and support on the crazy, careening, roller-coaster ride that has been my picture book career. In 1996, Theron Raines, Joan’s partner and husband, described my ups and downs prophetically. He said, “I wish Mordicai would stop going over Niagara Falls in a barrel and walk across the Grand Canyon on a tightrope!” I’ve had those words taped over my desk for the past eight years.
My eternal gratitude to Philippe Petit, who is also a marvelous writer, for doing what he did and still continues to do, for all of us.
I feel, thanks to the award, a new sense of freedom and I see at the horizon of my imagination, picture books barely dreamed of waiting to be born … and I wonder what they’ll be.
Thank you for honoring my book.
Mordicai Gerstein - 2004

Back to top

Globe–Hornbook Award Acceptance Speech

I am privileged to stand here and talk to you because I told a story. It wasn’t even an original or made-up story. I found it in a newspaper and it amazed me. Reading it made the soles of my feet tingle. The story made me happy and it made me feel that being human was a little more wonderful, a little grander, than I’d previously imagined. I wanted to tell the story to others, and so, using pictures as well as words, I made a book.
I’ve since met people who have read my book and they’ve told me that it amazed them and made the soles of their feet tingle, and that it was a story they felt they needed, and needed to show to others. And so here we all are because of a story.
What is it about stories? Why are they so important to us? Why spend so much time and effort in the hearing and reading and telling and writing of them? Of course there’s money in it – but why? Why do people all over the world spend the money they’ve earned driving taxis, selling shoes, building buildings, plowing fields, so that they can hear or see a good story? What do stories give us? Why do we pursue and treasure them, as well as the authors, actors, visual artists, dancers and musicians who tell them? Music — a lot of people listening to other people makes noises — is another kind of storytelling, universally important and valued, though so mysterious that we have even less of an idea of what it does for us. What is it for? Why do we need to jump around when we hear it?
Do all creatures tell stories? Do bears tell stories? I’m sure crows do. I’ve heard them. What are the stories cats tell? Do they tell jokes? Are they about us? What kinds of jokes do dogs tell? I believe dog jokes are very like the one-word jokes little children tell, for instance” Boom!” or “Splash!” Or like slightly older children who tell jokes such as, “Underwear!” and “Naked” and “Fart!”
Doesn’t everything tell stories? I’ve recently spent some days and nights listening to the ocean telling and retelling the tales it has to tell and I never tired of listening to it sing and sigh, thump and whisper and roar; stories from unimaginable depths, stories of billions of fluttering jellyfish and slowly plummeting whales and flashing schools of bluefish.
And of course there are the stories the wind tells the leaves and the tales the leaves rattle in response, and the stories told by the rain that I heard as a child and hear still.
Food is another kind of story. Each thing we eat tells us a story. A carrot tells us about growing down into the dark earth, and becoming sweet and crisp. I can’t speak for others, but Garlic tells me Grimm's fairy tales. Onions and potatoes tell me about my father’s boyhood in WW1 Poland. Big Macs tell me about America. A chef creating a complex and thoughtful dinner is making a kind of opera. The tender young salad, the heroic baked ham, and its Sancho Panza sidekick, the mashed potatoes. The happy ending a trio: raspberry peach pie with vanilla ice cream.
We go through our days telling stories to each other and ourselves; we truly live in a sea of stories, which is the title of a Salmon Rushdie book I’ve never read. So many stories so little time!
Do these stories connect us in a kind of web? Do your stories become part of me and mine become part of you? Are we bound together by Humpty Dumpty and four and twenty blackbirds and Superman and James Joyce and Lemony Snickett and Walt Disney and Proust and People magazine? We’ve seen Chinese movies at the Cineplex, and in Beijing and Katmandu they’re watching Harry Potter, Finding Nemo, and the governor of California.
I believe that these stories feed us, nourish us, become part of us the way food does. They inform us the way air or helium informs a balloon.
It seems clear to me that everything in the world needs to know about every other thing in the world. My theory is that the driving force in the universe is curiosity —nosiness! It’s not a scientific theory; it’s the kind of theory you come up with if you write and illustrate books for children. But look at a pond, and the way each movement — the breeze wrinkling the surface, the water bug skating on it, the crayfish wriggling into the mud — is transmitted to every part of the pond and to everything else in it. The world has a need to know itself, and we are agents of that knowing. We first looked up at the stars and saw stories of ourselves and the gods and heroes. Now we begin to see the stars themselves, and they tell us stories we’ve never heard before about how everything began: the stars, the planets, space, and maybe someday, the origin of stories.
All day I hear stories from my radio, stories from everywhere brought to me through the air like ripples in the pond: some of them are fiction, poetry, music — all of which Ezra Pound called, “News that stays news!” Some of them are news of what’s happening today; we live in perilous times — but when haven’t we? When someone asked John Cage, who was a kind of Zen Buddhist, “Don’t you think there’s too much suffering in the world?” he replied, “I think there’s just the right amount.” I disagree. Some suffering is essential, but a lot of it is just plain unnecessary and a waste of time and should be abolished. The news stories tell me we are extremely dangerous creatures and of course stories, too, can be dangerous if they are used to mislead or manipulate, which is called lying.
I think all stories are about the mystery of being human, and out of all the stories that come to us we pick and choose and decide which are the most tasty, the most interesting, the most nourishing; which ones are fiction and poetry, and which ones tell of actual events, and which ones are lies. And we come up with … questions. Questions about what we believe.
I used to believe beliefs were things you believed because they were self-evident, like. “… all men are created equal …” But I’ve learned that beliefs can be deceiving, and I have to test and question them because what we believe is crucial. Just as stories can change the world, and have, and do, so do the beliefs that precede them, and come out of them.
Do beliefs arise from the truth or does the truth arise from beliefs? I’ve always believed that we humans are slowly, tortuously crawling, with frequent quantum hops and slips backward, toward evolving into creatures who will no longer have to kill each other; that eventually everyone will have to acknowledge how stupid it is and stop. But recently, I’ve been forced to admit, after careful readings of a lot of stories, that it seems it’s not true; that we will just go on doing what we‘ve always done. Even so, I’ve chosen to believe otherwise, that we can evolve, because of the chance that by believing it and acting out of that belief, we can make it the truth. And I also like to believe that stories, good stories with pictures, can be part of getting us there.
Then everyone can get together for dinner and tell stories. May you all have good dinners; may you receive good news from your soup, and may your salad be as fresh, crisp and surprising as a good poem.
Thank you for honoring my book.
Mordicai Gerstein - 2004

Back to top

New England Booksellers Association Speech

There seem to be moments, if you continue striving, and live long enough, when suddenly events long incomprehensible appear, suddenly, to make sense. A little island of lucidity. Aha! So that's why! Then you go on, and everything is just as much a muddle as ever before. Recently it became clear to me how the fact that I could not sell my very first picture book seventeen years ago brought me here to speak to you this evening.
I'm very glad to be here. I didn't get to be a part of the inner world where books are made and come from till I was well into my forties, and so it is still one of the pleasant surprises of my life. I like being with book people, surrounded by book people. It's a comfort, like being surrounded by books. Though I feel that now we book people are surrounded. Besieged. And by what? In part by bookstores — mega-stores, humunga-stores, stores so enormous, new words have to be invented to describe their hugeness — some of them made of electricity and pixels — and of course mega-stores need mega-publishers; vast complex communication entities materializing billions of units of product — another name for books -— to fill the yawning maws of the stores and the demands of mobs of clamoring readers. In this world of more and bigger bookstores, and bigger and fewer publishers, why do I as a book person feel besieged? Less happy, secure and at home? How did it happen that Walt Disney has become the author and illustrator of Winnie the Pooh? Wasn't there a Milne? and someone named Sheppard?
I remember my first bookstore, the old Pickwick on Hollywood boulevard, a long, long way from east LA, and so always a rare and special treat to go to. For all the years of my growing up, I thought it was, and it may have been, the only bookstore in Los Angeles. When I came to New York in 1957, it was the book stores, hundreds of book stores, each different and unique as the people that owned them, that as much as the museums, galleries, restaurants and jazz clubs, made the city magical. Now, in that city, there are many enormous, and very few small bookstores, and fewer still that carry old and used books. — new books are wonderful, but old books are maybe even more so, because of how, again and again, just the right one you didn't even know you were looking for jumps off the shelf and into your hand — And children's book stores, of which it seems just a few years ago there were so many, all over the country, having readings and Saturday events, how are they doing? I seem to have lost touch with them? Are they still there?
And are the books these mega-entities deal in the same kind of thing I've always known and loved? In a mega world, there still has to be a place for the small, the personal and the absolutely unique. I remember François Trufaut's movie of Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 where literate refugees form a world of screen watchers where books are illegal, live in hidden in the woods and each person memorizes a book — becomes a book - one person is Alice in Wonderland, another: Pride and prejudice. And so on. But could it be that today, rather than literature having been outlawed, it's been bought up and appropriated, so that Walt Disney, author and illustrator of Winnie the Pooh, will also become the author of Leaves of Grass, Walt Disney's Ulysses will fill the windows of Barnes and Noble, and Walt Disney's musical extravaganza, Good Night Moon, will pack 'em in on Broadway.
It was due in good part to Truffaut that I became, like Walt Disney, an author and illustrator. I was making films, animated and live, when I saw Truffaut's 1970 film, The Wild Child. It was based on the true story of Victor, a feral child of eleven or twelve captured in the mountains of Southern France at the beginning of the year, eighteen hundred. He seemed to have been living in the wild for years, was completely asocial, unable to speak or even listen, and had no knowledge of humankind. A Gypsy boy Truffaut found on the street played Victor with an eerie yet compelling strangeness. He seemed to have just come fresh out of nature’s womb, like a new-born twelve year old. Trufaut himself played the young Dr. Itard who, in opposition to all the experts of his day, believed the boy was educable, and with the methods he created to reach the boy, invented special education.
The movie, filmed in black and white was small, intimate, tender and deeply thoughtful. I assumed that Victor reminded Truffaut of himself, who was a wild child of the Paris streets till taken in and nurtured by a wise and loving mentor. I saw in the film the story of all of us, born as little wild things who must be taught to be human beings, one of the most difficult things in this world to be. And yet we don't want Victor to lose all his wildness, all touch with that other world we all come from and that he represents.
I was so taken with the film, its simple, austere passion, I had an urge to copy it, refilm it shot for shot, the way a painter might copy an old master. I didn't, but ten or so years later, after I had done a bit of book illustration and came across a paperback of the screen play, I thought that the story might make a wonderful picture book, and so I did a dummy for it, my first original book, and began showing it to editors.
I got a full range of responses, from the editor that criticized it for being a true story told as if it were a fairy tale, which was my intention, to the editor who read it as I sat there and burst into tears at the end, which astounded me. But none of them bought it. I began to work on another story, a kind of humorous take off on the wild child idea: about a baby lost in a swamp and raised by a mother duck. I named the mother duck Leda, and realized I didn't know enough Greek mythology to be sure if the original Leda was a swan or a lady that had some thing to do with a swan. And so I dipped into Robert Graves', The Greek Myths, and discovered, at the age of 45, the wondrous world of Ancient Greece, Homer, Hesiod, Herodotus and the myths as told by Ovid in his Metamorphosis. Out of this came another book, Tales of Pan — all the stories of the God Pan. The Metamorphosis led me to the selkie legends of the northern British Isles, and out of these came The Seal Mother, another book. And so out of my involvement with the Wild boy, came all my other books, like boxes opening up out of boxes within boxes. And these other books were sold and published, which was very gratifying, and they gave rise to more books, but no one would take The wild Boy. It was admired, but is it really a children's story? Won't it frighten them? How would we sell it, and to whom? And so on, till I finally read it to the wonderful writers work group I attended at Bank Street College, and someone suggested that maybe this story couldn't be contained in a picture book, maybe it had to be a novel.
Well, I had had a lurking fear when I first began trying to write picture books, that eventually, like it or not, I would have to write a novel. It was what I most feared, and that it would have to be a novel about something adolescent and painful, and I dreaded it.
I put The Wild Boy away in the drawer we all have for such things, but it would not be forgotten. And one day I found myself writing a few tentative pages of what would become a five or six year odyssey into the life times and world of Victor and his mentor, Jean-Mark Gaspard Itard.
And when the book was as finished as it was going to get, and finally found its way into the hands of Frances Foster, my wonderful editor at Farrar Strauss, who wanted to publish it, I dug the old dummy, now seventeen years old, out of the drawer, to show to her, thinking she might be interested in the origins of the novel.
She read it through as I sat there, looked up and said, "well this is wonderful, we'll publish this also. In fact we'll publish them simultaneously."
For a moment I was sure she was insane, and told her once more how no one would publish it, and explained all their good reasons.
"If I had seen it seventeen years ago, I would have bought it then," she said. "But I know the real reason you couldn't sell it."
" And why is that?" I asked,
"Be cause if you had, you would never have written the novel."
And of course she was right. And I may never have written Arnold of the Ducks either, or The Tales of Pan or the Seal Mother, and I most likely wouldn't be here tonight, and I'd feel badly about that.
Thank you for having me.
Mordicai Gerstein - 2004

Back to top

American Jewish Library Association Speech

How to Draw a Picture of God: The Midrashim of My Life
In 1991 I was faced with a dilemma I had looked forward to all my life; how do you draw a picture of God? As a child I loved to draw. I drew before I could walk or talk. Crawling around the house I drew on the floor. I drew on the walls. My parents encouraged me. I went to art classes for kids. I went to art school. They never taught me to how to draw God. There were drawing lessons in the comic books I loved; a bunch of adjacent ellipses miraculously became a perfect likeness of Micky Mouse. But there was nothing similar to help me draw God. In 199I wanted to make a picture book based on a midrash about Moses and God. I knew what Moses looked like – forget Charlton Heston – Moses was my grandfather Willie with a beard. I thought at first I knew what God looked like too; I'd known since I was very little, but the more I worked on it, the less sure I became.
And then, I was surprised to be confronted with the question of whether I should draw God at all. Or whether anyone should draw anything. When the painter Ad Rhinehart was asked why he only painted pictures that were completely black he said, "because thou shalt make no graven image of anything in heaven or on earth or in the sea!" Which is one of the best explanations and justifications I've ever heard for abstract art: God likes it. Out of only Ten commandments the one against making images is number two, before thou shalt not kill, or commit adultery – how is it most of us illustrators dare to just ignore it? Jewish illustrators in medieval Europe became devious when they illustrated their Hagaddahs; there were no people in them, just bizarre bird- beaked reptiles like something out of Star Wars, because they weren't, " any thing seen on heaven or on earth," or even under the sea.
Where do we get the Chutzbah to draw anything anywhere - not to mention God? Well, obviously, the world is full of graven images of all kinds, and getting fuller, and many of them, in various ways, are worshiped, and the world goes on – or seems to. Maybe if, as some lawmakers urge, we hang up the Ten Commandments in every school room, it will cut down not only on murder and adultery, but also on the future numbers of graven images. But I, like countless other visual artists, thinking maybe, there is safety in numbers and the fact that humans have done it ever since drawing was invented 30,000 years ago, blithely ignore the second Commandment. Maybe some day all of us will wake up and find out we made a big mistake.
As I said, I thought I knew what god looked like; by which I mean, the way He is pictured in the western tradition of which I am a part. My memories of childhood are very vivid and close to me, and there were pictures. My parents filled the house with pictures. My parents amaze me. My amazing father came to this country from Poland at the age of nine or ten, and was put into a Chicago Kindergarten where he learned English, and in his teens, ran off from his orthodox family to New York to become an actor and playwright. He never went to college, wound up in Los Angeles, and spent his life working in the wholesale grocery business, but he eventually wrote plays. My amazing mother, whose father and illiterate mother were Odessan immigrants, and whose own education went no farther than a year of junior college, hung the walls of our tiny basement flat with reproductions cut from books on Picasso and Ceazane, that austere father of modern art. How did she know about Ceazane? My mother made a scrapbook of pictures cut from Life magazine. It was really a home made art book and the first book I can remember. On my belly on the rug I turned it's pages over and over. I was especially fascinated with a picture of a white robed and bearded old man kneeling on a cloud and leaning out beyond it with a large measuring device. Who is this and what is he doing? I was told it was God making the world; one of the great William Blake's illustrations for the book of Job. Fearless Blake dared draw God and everything else in heaven and earth and the sea, and said he never drew anything he hadn't seen with his own eyes. There were also his drawings of God making Adam out of dust, and the morning stars singing together. There was also Michaelangeo's God reaching out to touch Adam's finger. These also are midrashim. Later when I asked my Grandpa Willie what made the rain, and he told me the old guy is peeing up there, thanks to William Blake and Michaelangelo, I knew exactly who he meant. My Grandma Bluma would look through the book with me and tell me her stories about the pictures: The Mona Lisa is happy because her grandson is coming to visit and she just made poppy seed cookies for him. These are the legends of my family.
I seem to have always known the stories from the torah, as if I'd absorbed them by osmosis, as if they were a part my own story and that of my family. When I was about five, a stocky old man with a short, bristly. white beard came to sit next to me at our dining room table and teach me the Aleph Base. He smelled of the old prayer books in the morning glory covered wooden synagogue in East Los Angeles we called shul. He taught me the names of the Hebrew letters and how they sounded, but no stories. I believe I was introduced to the biblical world by songs and pictures. I remember one morning being riveted by a voice from the radio singing, " Joshua fit the battle of Jericho and the walls come Tumbling down!", and singing , "Go down, Moses, way down in Egypt land. Tell old Pharaoh, Let my People GO!" and knowing somehow that those people were my people. I know now that the voice was Paul Robeson, and I think that these songs are Midrashim. I also heard a song about how old man Moses kicked the bucket, and also one about how Jonah he lived in a whale, and he made his home in that fish's ab-domen.
Our earliest memories are our personal myths and legends, which include our hearings and misunderstandings of family legends and stories, and the Bible people – Samson with his hair of power, Noah and his ark – are part of my family and yours. They are us. The Garden of Eden for me was Wabash Avenue where we lived, I was a five year old Adam and Eve was Shirley, my friend next door, and because the lady with the parrot across the alley saw what Shirley and I did together under the back porch and told our mothers, sin, shame and learning not to get caught entered Eden, and Eden was Eden no longer.
At seven or eight, in Hebrew school, I did learn the stories of Cain and Able, Abraham and Isaac and Sarah, Joseph and his brothers, and what stories they are. These are stories of families: mothers and fathers and sons and brothers – and a few sisters – and of course, God.
It was no surprise, given my parents, that I became an artist. They wanted an artist. After high school, I went to art school; though when my younger brother's guitar teacher, himself a world famous virtuoso, told my parents that my brother had potential for a concert career as a classical guitarist, they sent him off to college and eventually law school. One artist in the family was enough. At first I was going to be a painter, the highest, purest calling of a visual artist, though secretly, I always loved doing illustration, and even comic books, both far from art's pure heights. And of the illustrations I would have loved to do, foremost were ones of the bible stories. After all, ever since I was little I knew how God looked.
I had to earn a living, got a job in an animated cartoon studio and painted nights. I also loved animated cartoons, especially Bugs Bunny, which I couldn't admit to until pop art freed us all by destroying forever the idea of bad taste – a really cataclysmic emancipation of the human sensibility and the arts.
I didn't begin writing and illustrating picture books till my early forties, and, having very young somehow, become inoculated with the idea that you may not directly pursue your heart's true desire, I put the idea of doing the Old Testament stories off into some ideal future.
In 1991 my mother was twenty years dead and my father, past eighty and stricken with advanced Parikinson's, was in a nursing home in Los Angeles. He had retired and written plays, and seen some of them produced. Now he could no longer speak, and could barely move. At the same time, in San Francisco, my son Aram and his wife were expecting my first grandchild. Such is life. From where I lived with my wife and daughter in western Massachusetts, I went back and forth from father to son, needing to be with all of them. Being with my father was difficult because there was no longer conversation, and I decided to spend the time reading to him. Staying with my brother, I searched his book shelves and pulled out a book titled The Folk Literature of the Kurdistani Jews, an Anthology, edited and translated by Jonah Sabar. I knew nothing of Kurdistani Jews, but I was sure there must be some because my mother always assured us there were Jews everywhere – China, Malaysia, India, you name it, you'll find them. I opened the book to an ancient midrash on the death of Moses. I take The definition of midrash from Louis Ginzburg, the folklorist and scholar whose seven volume, The Legends of the Jews is an invaluable treasure and resource. He says a midrash is a legend about biblical characters used to teach a lesson or make a point. In this one, God tells Moses his time on earth is done, and Moses argues with God to let him live a little longer. "Please Lord, just a little longer! Make me into a butterfly, I'll sleep on the wind, I won't take up any room ..." God says everything has a time to die, and even He cannot change it. Moses pleads with the hills, sun, and stars to intercede for him and change god's mind, before finally, he submits himself to God's law. Then God can't find an angel willing to take Moses' soul, he is so beloved in heaven, and finally God has to take his soul Himself, with a kiss of His mouth. And then, even though all the angels try to comfort him, saying Moses' soul is with Him forever, God sits down and weeps with grief at the loss of His servant.
I read it and wept too. It was the most direct, unflinchingly honest thing I had ever read about death, and it spoke directly to my precise situation. I took it and began to read it to my father. When it became clear to him what the substance of it was, he shook his head vehemently and had me stop. Like Moses, he didn't want to hear about it, but I began trying to turn it into a picture book.
Certain stories are perfect for picture books. I think of a picture book as a little theatre you hold in your hand, operated by turning the pages. It's a cross between a poem, a movie and an opera. For me, the story has to have a clear , simple shape, and has to have a primal emotion al content that's meaningful t o everyone. Picture books are primarily for children, but all of us either are, or have been children, and a book idea has to be meaningful to me, my wife and friends as well as my fourteen year old daughter and my grandchildren. The key word is clarity, a clarity that always contains mysteries. A picture book should be provocative of conversation and discussion and most of all, questions. Good questions.
Moses was Grandpa Willie with a long beard and white robes, and at first, so was God; Just like William Blake and Michaelangelo.
This upset my friend Norman, who was himself an expert, having written a fine novel called Learning About God. "You can't show pictures of God," he insisted. "It's not Jewish! Thou shalt make no graven images! and Blake and Michaelango got away with it because they weren't Jewish."
Norman touched the buried concern I found I had with depicting God. He reminded me how Moses himself demanded to see the face of God and was shown only his backside. Some midrashim interpret this as seeing the end – or back – of time, but Norman insisted Moses saw God's posterior.
Norman's concerns finally got to me. He was right. I had to abandon Blake's and Michaelangelo's Yaweh and somehow depict an omnipresent invisible God. How do you draw invisible?
One picture, it is said, is worth a thousand words – sometimes. Sometimes it's quite the opposite: "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth”; draw that! In a way, any picture says less, the more specific you are, the fewer the possibilities. The illustrations of a Biblical story are themselves midrashim because they tell us things about the nature of the people, of the world, of the deity; in Blake's pictures, if the wind blowing through them blows to the left, the character will live, but if like my Moses, the beard blows to the right, he is moving toward death. The light in picture tells of the time of day, the time of life, the state of mind.
In this story I had to picture invisible things: God taking Moses' soul with the kiss of his mouth (again, the words somehow say more than any picture). What does she look like, the soul? How can I make it clear what's happening? How does God sit down and weep? In depicting, the pictures comment, explore, question. My Noah has red hair in a halo around his bald head; he resembles the sun that is sometimes the eye of God and that finally triumphs over the deluge. In my pictures Jonah is constantly trying to sleep and God is continually waking him up. At the end he is awake and enlightened. Each picture tells its own story of how big, how much, and what color. Color is language and tells its own stories.
After much experiment and struggle, I came up with a God who appears in the spaces between things, whose profile is seen where the clouds are not, whose eye is sometimes a bird, sometimes a star or sometimes the planet Jupiter. In this way, the pictures discuss the nature of God, and even provoke a game: can you find God in this picture? I showed pictures to Norman . . . and Norman saw that it was good. Norman was having his own argument with God over multiple sclerosis. Just this spring, like Moses, he conceded to God.
My father died the year my granddaughter Daisy was born. 1991. The story about Moses, The Shadow of a Flying Bird, as the book was called, became my first book to come out of the Jewish tradition, though not without additional struggle. The original publisher that had enthusiastically bought it, suddenly refused to publish it. They had shown the sales people the finished art; "Where's God?" they asked. They said it was too religious and they couldn't sell it. What kind of sales staff is that? I would have fired them. Instead they fired me.
Another publisher was found and I got to do something I always want to do every time I finish a book: do it over again the right way, now that I've learned how to do that book.The Shadow of a Flying Bird, was soon followed by the story of Jonah, and then Noah – and soon will be followed by the story of Esther and Mordicai. All the stories are enriched with midrashim and legend, mostly from Ginzburg's great compendium; legends that tell the reader what they really want to know: how many, how long, how far, why, what did it look like, and what happened afterward.
I love this Jewish tradition of creating stories and legends about the people that we know of through the stories of the Torah, our biblical uncles and aunts, Bobbas and Zadas. It is an interaction and makes the torah a conversation, an exchange. Intellectual argument and discussion were honored pastimes in my family, and my mother was very proud of the Jewish tradition of arguing with God. The Kurdistani Jews have created their own version of Genesis in which Adam and Eve are forgiven and return to Eden to live in eternal bliss. I might write a midrash in which Moses and my father and Norman – all of us – are allowed to live forever. Well, not forever, but maybe – please – a little longer.
Mordicai Gerstein - 2004

Back to top


The Books in My Life: Sh’ma Magazine, 2004
I began reading at the age of four and I’ve been doing it ever since, so when asked about books that have influenced and shaped me, any book that comes to mind reminds me of others, and those bring up more and more; it’s like one of my first favorites, Millions of Cats, Wanda Gag’s great picture book in which an old couple try to choose one cat out of millions and wind up choosing them all.
I still feel the profound impact of the first book I ever read, To Think that I Saw It on Mulberry Street, by Dr. Seuss. It tells in pictures and words of a boy walking home to a father who, everyday, asks him “What did you see on Mulberry Street?” And everyday, all the boy sees is an old horse and wagon, and so he imagines all the things he’d love to tell his father he’d seen: zebra’s, chariots, a circus parade accompanied by a squadron of cops on motorcycles. But when he faces his father he must answer the question with “… just an old horse and wagon on Mulberry Street.” The book was essential to releasing my imagination to confront and overcome the ordinary and banal, and to embrace the wonderful.
. Alice in Wonderland has a very special place for me: it validated the bizarre world of dreams and showed me the absurdity in what we call rational and, along with Mary Poppins, let me glimpse the marvelous hidden behind the mundane. They both prepared me for Kafka, and Poe and Joyce’s Ulysses, in which words create a multi-dimensional world in time and space, which in turn opened me to the desolate novels and plays of Samuel Becket in which language itself is the only comfort. But I could never be me without Grimm’s Fairy Tales, The stories of I. B. Singer, Genesis, Ginzberg”s Legends of the Jews, Freddy the Pig, Superman, Donald Duck, Li’l Abner, Plasticman, and the now politically incorrect, Nize Baby by Milt Gross, to name just a few of the myriad.
I was aware of drawing on almost all of these sources in my new YA novel, The Old Country. When it was done I came across a Wallace Stevens poem, Dry Loaf that I hadn’t seen in years and had forgotten, and was stunned to realize that my book had come in part directly out of that poem. Later, an adult reader of The Old Country told me that it reminded her of Kosinski’s Painted Bird. Of course! I had read it in my teens, forgotten it, and now saw that it was essential to the character of my book.
So I’ve come to realize that all the books I’ve read have shaped and influenced me: the great ones surely, but also the middling and mediocre and even the comic books I’m sure my parents thought were trash.
We live good days and bad days and wonderful days, and we read good and wonderful and mediocre books, each gives us something essential to who we are becoming, and all together, whether we love them or hate them, or even remember them, they make up our lives and ourselves.
Mordicai Gerstein

Who The Wild Things Are: The Hornbook, 1996
Stories about feral children have always fascinated me. As a child I read what stories I could find, and as an adult I found myself writing them. For me part of the purpose of writing is to find out why a subject intrigues me. Why the feral child?
I first encountered him when I was seven or eight in the dust-and popcorn- scented darkness of a neighborhood movie palace. The enormous deep red velvet curtains lifted in curved folds and there was a tangled jungle of intensely green leaves and vines where deer huddled, and tigers and panthers stalked. Leaves rattled in close-up and then parted and there was a boy, brown-skinned, bare-chested, black hair flowing to his shoulders, quick black eyes flicking back and forth, nostrils dilated and twitching: Sabu as Mowgli.
For the next couple of years, that's who I wanted to be: a self sufficient prince of the jungle who came and went by swinging through the trees, diving and swimming rivers, who spoke the languages of all the animals; who had wolves for brothers, and a black panther for a best friend — and a life infinitely more wonderful than the one I lived in our San Fernando Valley ranch house. A bit later when I read The Jungle Book, on which the film was based, I was equally captivated. Walt Disney's later cartoon version, full of songs and one-liners missed, for me, the beauty and magic, as did Tarzan, a grown up feral child I knew from the Sunday comics and black-and-white B movies.
The heart of my fantasy was leaving the human world for a kind of jungle Eden where all one needed was readily available and that had, in Kiplings version, less hypocrisy, more nobility. I liked best the idea of being protected from potential enemies by powerful animal friends. Mowgli knew the animal dialects, the proverbs of the wolves, the polite way to address a snake. In the realm of fairy tale, conversations between people and animals, like Little Red Riding Hood's chat with the wolf, are everyday events. I suspect this springs from an underlying human belief that we actually do communicate with animals, verbally and non-verbally; making eye contact with an owl or fox in the woods feels to me like a substantial exchange of greetings and questions.
There is also a genre in children's literature of the wild ,rather than feral, child. The wild child, rather than being lost in the wild, chooses and embraces it, along with wildness. The Gingerbread boy may be its archetype. Off he goes into the world, absolutely independent, caring not a whit for anyone and afraid of nothing. (Of course, he doesn't do too well.) Sendack's Max is a gingerbread boy, who plunges back into the jungle of his own inherent wildness and celebrates it; the prince of his own jungle, he thrives in it. Huck Finn is another. But these are not "feral" children.
Historically, only a handful of cases of children found living in the wild, alone, or with animals, have been more or less convincingly documented. In the typical account, the feral child always resists capture and once captured, is found to be mute, though some are reported to have later learned to speak at least a few words. There is then always the hope of bringing the child into society, teaching it to speak, and learning something of its wild life, at the same time, though, and almost paradoxically, we study the child, trying to find answers to questions of what kind of creatures we are at our essence — who we would be without the guidance and education provided by family and society.
There have also been cases — like that of of Kaspar Hauser in the 19th century and Genie in the latter part of ours — of children who were imprisoned, isolated and kept from all society or outside stimulus; children who have been forced to play what amounts to the subject in what Roger Shattuck calls the "forbidden experiment", by which he means depriving a child of society and human context to create an pure example of humanity. These cases only give us painful evidence of the effects of such abusive treatment. Herodotus tells of a king who preformed this experiment to determine the original language of mankind. He caused a mute shepherd to raise a child away from all society. At the age of five the child was brought before the king who addressed him. The boy responded by baaing like a sheep. It was the only language he had heard.
Edgar Rice Burroughs' Tarzan became king of the apes, and Kipling made Mowgli a kind of jungle prince, superior in both the animal and human realms because of his human intelligence and dexterity combined with his jungle knowledge. But the antelope boy, who the writer Jean-claude Armen reported to have been seen in the Sahara in the 1960s, was not dominant or superior in his herd, and the wolf girls found in India early in this century were neither leaders of the pack nor successful humans. Jane Yolen depicts them very realistically in her novel, Children of the Wolf , and they are not very appealing — except to the adolescent boy who is the novel's hero, and for whose emerging self-awareness they are a foil. While Julie in Jean George's Julie of the Wolves is not a feral child, she brings us close to a community of wolves in a very convincing, more realistic way than either Mowgli or Tarzan. Karen Hesse's, Song of the Dolphin is remarkable in that it tries to give us first-hand the experience of being a feral child adopted by dolphins by having the protagonist tell us in her own words, as she aquires them, about her life among the dolphins.
The great opportunity in these stories is to escape the vantage of anthropocentricity to experience an alternative way of living on this earth; of seeing human society from a completely alien point of view, as Hesse's dolphin girl does, and so provide a critical vision of that society. One of the greatest gifts of fiction is allowing us to see through the eyes of others.
Another vast topic involved in stories of feral children is education; how we learn to be what we are, and how much of what we are is learned.
If Sabu's Mowgli fired my seven year old imagination with ideas of joining the wilder world, Francoise Trufaut's film The Wild Child, introduced the more mature me to Victor of Aveyron, and a new completely convincing vision of a child, seemingly unmarked by the human world, surviving successfully alone. The boy who played Victor was as beautiful in his own way as Sabu's Mowgli. There is an uncanny un- human quality in everything he does. Victor's real life teacher, twenty-six year old Jean-Marc-Gaspard Itard, wrote two reports of his six years of work with the pre-adolescent boy found naked and mute in the rugged mountains of south central france at the start of the 19th century. Unlike the accounts of the Indian wolf girls, Itard's descriptions of Victor evoke a sprite of some kind; there is a magic about him. The story of Victor has all the elements potential in the wild child scenario. I used it as inspiration for my first picture book, Arnold of the ducks, and then later for The Wild Boy, and Eventually the novelized account of the story, Victor. Itard's reports not only provide the best documentation we have of a feral child, but also one of the most thoughtful, beautifully written, and moving accounts of a teacher pupil relationship, which has as its object nothing less than learning to be a human being (or at least what Itard, as a man of his time, thought a human being to be). Thinkers of the enlightenment felt it particularly urgent to define the differences between humankind and other animals (among which some wanted to include people they called "savages") in order to draw clear borders separating us from them. In 1735 the scientist Linneaus named homo Ferus a distinct species. Itard's ambition to have Victor speak ultimately failed, but even if he had succeeded, he could never know Victor better or be more truly, deeply engaged with him than those evenings, early on, when they sat together as Victor loved to, with the boy's face buried in the man's hands. But the more Itard taught Victor, the more civilized he became, the more the distance between them grew.
For me another major fascination with the feral child is the thought of experiencing the world without language, directly, as pure sensation. Language is not only a medium of interpersonal communication, but also the means we use to speak to ourselves, and in so doing, objectify ourselves. I am a voice and I am a listener. What was I before language? I see language as a kind of clothing or armour. I look up and see the moon; I have a name for it. The name is between myself and it. The word is a kind of shield or filter. But what would it be to face the moon — that big, blind, glowing eye — without a word to protect me from it? What is it like to experience the world as an infant does?
Are ideas possible without language? What is the nature of thought without words? Would there be some other language, a grammar of the senses, some medium to order and deal with our experience? What is it? One of the most moving and remarkable chapters of Mary Shelly's Frankenstein is the one in which the monster describes his first days of life, his first vivid, incoherent, innocent impressions of the world: "It is with considerable difficulty that I remember the original era of my being; all the events of that period seem confused and indistinct. A strange multiplicity of sensations seized me, and I saw, felt, heard, and smelt at the same time; and it was, indeed, a long time before I learned to distinguish between the operations of my various senses." Helen Keller, deprived of sight, hearing, and language, lived this; it was her childhood. As she describes it with the words she learned later, it was a wild and rather formless world of sensations. Her aquisition of language was for her a joyful revelation that gave form to her world and, most important, made her a social being.
The idea — the fantasy — of the feral child brings me close to me certain summer mornings of my early childhood, walking barefoot over bedewed grass through the shadowy coolness under trees and bushes. It is the joy of not needing clothes or towns or anything or anyone, and being a part of the day and place, as it is a part of me. It is the idea of living outside the constraints and forms of society, outside of language, in a life of direct relation, as in Martin Buber's I - Thou.. This I imagine as a state of constant wonder.
Of course I have a much more intellectual understanding of the feral child story and all its implications, but at bottom, I simply take pleasure in it, as I do in drinking cool sweet water, which, maybe is the real point after all. Intellectual understanding has its limits, and there is another and more primal kind that has its own meanings and content. The one without being tempered by the other is incomplete. Poetry, I believe, is the name we give to that expression that attempts to say the un-sayable: "The poem," Wallace Stevens said, "must resist the intelligence almost succesfully." (italics mine)
I believe a story is good to the extent it provokes good questions. The tale of the feral child is fascinating because it brings up so many questions, not so much about who we are, but what we are and how we become what we are. And just as interesting, given other circumstances, what might we become?
Mordicai Gerstein

Back to top

Click here to visit