Twin Tower tightrope walker inspires picture book
By Jane Van Ingen
Mordicai Gerstein, who has written more than 30 childrens books, has proven that you can write about the Twin Towers without focusing on the horrors of 9/11. His latest picture book, The Man Who Walked Between the Towers, is about the tightrope artist, Philippe Petit. In 1974, before the World Trade Center was completed, Petit was a young daredevil who had walked between the steeples of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. Walking between the towers would be a little more complicated, and slightly illegal.
But Petit was undeterred. He snuck into the towers with some friends, dressed as construction workers. Late at night, they strung the 440-pound reel of cable, which was only 5/8th of an inch thick, across the towers. They used a bow and arrow to shoot a leader line across the gap. After dawn, he took his 28-foot balancing pole and started walking across the wire, feeling happy, free and unafraid. It didnt take long before a crowd appeared and the police shouted with bullhorns for him to get down. But Petit walked, ran, danced, skipped and even lying down on the wire for almost an hour before he walked back to the towers and was arrested. The judge was lenienthe ordered Petit to perform for some children in a city park. Ironically, during one of these performances, Petit fell when some boys jerked on the wire. But he caught himself.
The book, aimed at readers five to eight, has 43 realistic paintings, including two pull-out centerfolds. Children can feel the pedestrians shock and the polices outrage. In the drawings that depict Petit on the tightrope, the bridges, harbor, piers, neighboring boroughs and even the street traffic are wonderfully depicted. If you look closely, many of Gersteins paintings of the towers have an orange squiggle on top. Near the end of the book, he states simply, Now the towers are gone and shows the naked skyline.
Gerstein did not witness Petits act on the towers though he witnessed many of his other street performances. For research, he used Petits book about his walk, To Reach the Clouds and numerous other magazine and newspaper articles. He lived in Lower Manhattan for 25 years before moving to Northampton, Massachusetts in 1983, where he currently resides with his wife and family. According to an interview in the Boston Globe, Gerstein had no real love for the towers. They displaced his studio on Fulton St. Once the towers were completed, he thought the buildings were an eyesore.
Yet after Sept. 11, Gerstein remembered Petits courageous walk. He told the Globe that the book is his way of writing about the terrorist attacks. After being rejected by numerous publishers, it was published last September by Roaring Brook Press, a division of Millbrook Press. It received praise from some critics and the American Library Association and it recently won the 2004 Randolph Caldecott Medal.
Sales have been slow. Amazons sales rank is 724 and its not even available on Barnes and Nobles Web site.
A bookseller at 7th Avenue Books for Kids in Park Slope said all the local bookstores were actively trying to get copies since the book won the Caldecott. Peter Glassman, the owner at Books of Wonder, a childrens bookstore in Chelsea, said the book sold well even before it won an award, especially when Gerstein gave a reading at the store. Glassman is impressed by the book and wasnt at all surprised when the book won the award.
I think its a beautiful book and it deserved the medal, said Glassman. It tells a wonderful story. Its unusual for a press to win the Caldecott two years in a row and its as big of a deal for the author as it is for the publisher.