Mordicai Gerstein: A Tribute

The Man Who Walked Between the TowersWe here at Calling Caldecott are sad to have read the news about the death of Mordicai Gerstein, who wrote and illustrated children’s books for nearly five decades. I first heard about his death on Tuesday when Richard Michelson of R. Michelson Galleries in Northampton, Massachusetts, shared the news of his passing on social media.

To say that Gerstein, winner of the 2004 Caldecott Medal for The Man Who Walked Between the Towers, had a distinctive artistic style would be a massive understatement. What stands out to me is his especially eloquent, fluid line work. He had a way of drawing in pen and ink that was so … Gerstein-esque. That’s my inelegant way of saying you could spot a Mordicai Gerstein book in no time flat. No one else drew and painted quite like him.

If you aren’t familiar with his work, please jot down some of the books here and explore. I figure, however, that if you’re reading this blog, you’ve read at least some of his titles — because he made an indelible mark in children’s literature. The breathtaking Man Who Walked Between the Towers (who can forget the spine-tingling “Now the towers are gone” spread?) not only won the Caldecott but also won a Boston Globe–Horn Book Award, was a New York Times Best Illustrated Children’s Book, and more. You can read further about his honors and accolades here.

Most importantly, however, his books were loved by child readers, even if he once said (see this wonderful video at Michelson's site) that he wrote and illustrated books for “people. They call them ‘children’s books,’ the ones I do, but they’re for people. They’re for everybody.”

At his website, Gerstein — who began his career in animation — wrote: “From the first, I loved the picture book medium. It was film and drawing and theater all in one.” In an interview at my site in 2013, he told me, “I have always had a great love and respect for the art of drawing — and the people who practice it.” We are grateful for his body of work, an impressive bibliography that ran the gamut from mischievous (Tales of Pan) to surreal (Stop Those Pants!) to hushed and reverent (The Night World) to wondrous (his novel The Old Country) to gloriously fantastical yet oh-so practical (How to Bicycle to the Moon to Plant Sunflowers), and that covered such subjects as Greek mythology (I Am Hermes! was released just this year), apples (Eden Ross Lipson’s Applesauce Season, my favorite autumn book), creativity and art (The Sleeping GypsyThe First Drawing; Jacques Prévert’s How to Paint the Portrait of a Bird), seasons and the passing of time (The Story of May), mysteries (including Elizabeth Levy’s Something Queer Is Going On, which launched him into children’s books), and so, so much more.

Michelson tells us that his gallery will pay tribute to Gerstein at its 30th annual Illustration Celebration on November 10, 2019. Gerstein has been with Michelson’s gallery for over thirty years.

Our condolences to Gerstein’s family. His books will live forever.


Julie Danielson
Julie Danielson
Julie Danielson writes about picture books at the blog Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast. She also writes for Kirkus Reviews and BookPage and is a lecturer for the School of Information Sciences graduate program at the University of Tennessee. Her book Wild Things!: Acts of Mischief in Children’s Literature, written with Betsy Bird and Peter D. Sieruta, was published in 2014.
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Kevin Oberhausen

The Man Who Walked Between the Towers is one of the best read-alouds out there for 2nd grade and up. It's a fantastic story, but it's the illustrations that set it apart and make it so special to share. Kids are drawn in immediately by Petit, and few picture books accomplish building a story so suspenseful or meaningful, it does both! Pure genius, he will be missed.

Posted : Nov 05, 2019 09:31

Julie Danielson

Laura, that is lovely. Thank you for sharing.

Posted : Oct 01, 2019 02:08

Laura Schlitz

I loved Mordicai Gerstein's work. Both his drawings and his prose were alive with childlike qualities--mischief, wonder, imagination, spontaneity. His work could also slip into a minor key--he had depth, melancholy, and irony. He was a mensch. I had the great joy of meeting him when he visited my school shortly after he won the Caldecott Medal. The man was like his books: playful, wide awake, compassionate. He listened attentively to every child's question, not answering by rote, but considering each question as if it were new. He sketched a picture of a man walking a tightrope while still holding the coiled cable in his hands, and told me that was what being a fiction writer was like--you had to have the courage to step out on the tightrope while it was anchored at only one end; you had to trust that the cable would unfurl as you continued to go on ahead. He was a beautiful man.

Posted : Sep 28, 2019 11:51


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