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Mordicai Gerstein Caldecott profile July/August 2004

By Elizabeth Gordon

On the wall near my desk is a small framed pen-and-ink drawing of a boy, arms (or should I say wings?) outstretched, tousled head of feathers, surrounded by a paddling of helpful ducks. It is from Arnold of the Ducks, and in many ways it symbolizes for me the very essence of Mordicai Gerstein. It is signed Christmas 1982, but Arnold was not the first book I worked with Mordicai on. He was the illustrator of Frankenstein Moved in on the Fourth Floor by Elizabeth Levy. His black-and-white drawings for that very funny book delivered the perfect combination of levity and fright for young readers. He understood Liz’s story exactly the way the children who read the book would. He really believed the neighbor could be Frankenstein. His drawings expanded and elaborated on the text, helping make the book a true page-turner for the chapter book set, leading the reader from beginning to end at just the right pace. Mordicai didn’t simply illustrate Liz Levy’s book — he worked with her to make text and art seamless. He was a true collaborator (and worked with Liz on dozens more books, including the winningly clever Something Queer series).

But back to Arnold of the Ducks — for it was the first book that Mordicai wrote as well as illustrated. That little pen-and-ink drawing is a masterpiece of expressive line. Those ducks are positively reveling as they help Arnold keep his feathery garb in good working order. Their puffy cheeks, so absolutely duck-like, convey completely their pride and love for this new member of their family. Arnold’s smile, his posture, the crinkles around his eyes, really just a few sketchy lines, let the reader know exactly how Arnold feels. From a distance, the drawing is perfect, but a closer look shows the work behind the perfection. There are white-out marks hiding stray or unnecessary lines, even a cut-out patch where Mordicai re-drew part of Arnold’s hand. Just as you don’t see the hard work and hours of painstaking practice that went into Philippe Petit’s soaring act of daring between the Towers, you don’t see the hard work and hours of painstaking practice that go into Mordicai’s own soaring acts of daring, acts that define each and every book he writes and illustrates. In Arnold, we also see the seeds of a subject that Mordicai would explore in greater depth in both The Wild Boy and Victor, that of the feral child. He was also exploring — in my opinion — the core of intuitive behavior that children have in abundance but most of us sadly lose when we grow older.

There have been many joys in working with Mordicai. He is a lovely, gentle man, with a twinkle in his eye and a way of looking at the world around him that is not exactly square on. His work in animation and filmmaking gave him, I think, the ability to look at story from many perspectives. In his book The Room, which grew from an experimental film he did in the 1960s, Mordicai gives us not only the story of an ordinary room but also the story of all the people who live in the room over time, and even a bit of the story of the city the room inhabits. In this ordinary room a little girl sees fairies, and families with children and a dentist with ducks come and go while the city grows outside one of the room’s windows and a pear tree endures outside the other. Mordicai fills this simple little room with all the explicit detail that makes even the most ordinary life extraordinary. There’s humor here, too, both high and low, as in all of Mordicai’s books. At the end of The Room, the reader has chuckled and sighed and is ready to be the next to take the “for rent” sign out of the window.

Mordicai is interested in everything! He’s an accomplished cook, an intrepid bicyclist, an avid reader of all things from poetry to history, and, of course, a painter and sculptor. He is a deeply spiritual man who brings an academic’s eye and mind to his exploration of the stories of the Bible. When he finds a topic that piques his interest, he researches it with all the fervor of a dogged detective. His more than thirty books are a reflection of these interests. From The Room to Tales of Pan to The Gigantic Baby to What Charlie Heard, Mordicai moves his readers to tears and laughter and a sense of wonder about the world. There is the “aha” of recognition coupled with the exhilaration of worlds not yet explored. Didn’t you always know there was another world under your sofa, down there with all the dust bunnies (Behind the Couch)? Didn’t you know that the months have personalities all their own (The Story of May)? Didn’t you really believe that dogs and cats are smarter than people, proud of themselves for making us take care of them (The New Creatures)? Thank goodness that Mordicai knows these things, too. Thank goodness he can give them shape and a story so that we can nod and tell ourselves, “Yes, I always knew that was true.”

As an editor, much of my satisfaction involved working with both text and art, helping — through questions, suggestions, and pointed comments — to make the work become fuller, tighter, more cohesive. But the particular pleasure of working directly with the creator of those words and pictures is like nothing else in the world. And for me, working with Mordicai was heaven. First of all, he has these ideas! Second of all, he loved talking about these ideas. And most important of all, he loved to work with his editor. Perhaps because he was secure in what he ultimately wanted his books and characters to be, there was always good, freewheeling discussion about his assumptions, about the effect each word or sentence or picture might have on the reader, about the internal integrity of his flights of imagination. Working with Mordicai made me a better editor. I knew he would listen to my observations and suggestions and then gently sift them through his own slightly skewed way of looking at the world. He used only what really seemed true to him, what really strengthened his own original vision of his book.

I called Mordicai the day the Caldecott Medal winner was announced: “About time!” I said. “So it took a Caldecott Medal for you to call!” he replied. And even though I haven’t worked on a book with him in years, all the delights of working with him came flooding back. Not just the editorial discussions, but also his absolute niceness and deep-down goodness as a person. I remember all the talks we had, whether about bicycling or his wife Susan and daughter Risa (the love and pride he had for them so apparent); the joy he got from living in a town filled with other fine writers and illustrators; even the inevitable shared sorrows from the illnesses and deaths of friends and family. In The Shadow of a Flying Bird, Mordicai promised me — as well as all his readers — that the Promised Land is waiting for us. In The Mountains of Tibet, he showed us the rich satisfactions of living a full life (although at the time, it was the feminist twist at the end that I loved so much). And in The Man Who Walked between the Towers, he shows us all how memory helps the joys of life remain strong.

Thanks, Mordicai, for being a good friend, a fine writer, an exquisite artist, an impeccable observer of human nature, and an all-around terrific nice guy!

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Now executive director of Americans for Libraries Council, a national nonprofit organization that champions the role of libraries in American life, Elizabeth Gordon previously worked in publishing, most notably as senior vice-president and publisher of the children’s book department at Harper- Collins and vice-president at the Walt Disney Company, where she started Hyperion Books for Children.

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