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Truffaut Film Inspires Two New Children's Books
Bella Stander -- 9/14/98
Mordicai Gerstein's longtime fascination with The Wild Child finally finds literary outlets
Many authors claim that a book has grown out of a character or historical event sparking their curiosity and imagination. But surely few have been held in the grip of fascination for as long as Mordicai Gerstein, whose more than 20-year interest in a mysterious boy has yielded two books (and indirectly inspired several others). In an unusual move, this month Farrar, Straus &Giroux is simultaneously releasing Gerstein's picture book The Wild Boy and YA novel Victor, about a feral child captured in post-revolutionary France.

Gerstein's interest in his subject was sparked in 1969, when, in his early 30s and working as an animator in New York City, he saw Francois Truffaut's film The Wild Child. The director played the part of Itard, the young Parisian doctor who tried to socialize the lad he dubbed Victor. Years later, Gerstein found a book of the screenplay "and it hit me that the story would make a picture book. It was my way of making a movie," he said. Itard's published reports on Victor, which Gerstein subsequently read in translation, set him "on fire. They were beautifully written and really wrenching."

By about 1981, Gerstein had roughed out The Wild Boy, but met with resistance from publishers. "Many editors were moved by it," Gerstein claimed, "but nobody would commit to publishing it because the sales force didn't know what to do with it." Frances Foster, his editor at FSG, said that people thought that the story, which ends with Itard wondering about what Victor is feeling as the boy stands transfixed in moonlight, was too sad for children. While noting that The Wild Boy "is not for two- to three-year-olds," Foster pointed out that when Gerstein was first showing the book around, "people weren't thinking of picture books as broadly as we do now. There was a perceived cutoff time for them: you could have them only until children went to school and learned to read." But in recent years, she added, "publishers, authors and artists have found that the picture book can be a wonderful format for material for older children," such as FSG's Starry Messenger, a Caldecott Honor book by Peter Sis.

A turning point for Gerstein came in 1983, when, frustrated that The Wild Boy still hadn't sold despite editors' praise, he showed the book to the Bank Street Writers Group in New York City, where someone suggested that he turn it into a novel. "I'd never had any real intention to write a novel," he confessed, "so it really had to percolate." In the meantime he moved to Northampton, Mass., and achieved success with other books he wrote and illustrated (there are about 20 to date), beginning with some that grew out of The Wild Boy. His first book at Harper, Arnold of the Ducks (1983), was a comedy about a baby boy who gets lost in the wild and is raised by a duck. And he identifies the protagonist of Tales of Pan (Harper, 1986) as "another version of Victor."

A Long and Winding Road

After about five years, Gerstein started writing Victor. Five years later still, having finished a first draft and taken a crash course in French, he spent three weeks bicycling through southern France, visiting the places Victor had lived. "Being there was thrilling," he recalled warmly. "I had read everything on the boy and that part of the country that I could get my hands on, so there was something familiar about it, even though I'd never been there before." What struck Gerstein most was "how little places had changed. The town centers of St. Sernin and Lacaun were almost the same as when Victor was captured." Upon his return home, he worked on the novel for at least another year.

Gerstein cited his agent, Joan Raines, as a great champion of Victor. "Joan kept me going and was very enthusiastic about it," he said. "We were both a little surprised that it wasn't an easy sell, because she had me all fired up by the time I'd finished it." In fact, Victor faced a number of rejections until Foster bought the novel for FSG in 1996, at which time he mentioned the picture book to her. Foster asked to see The Wild Boy, and as soon as she did, she said, "I thought it was amazing and that we had to publish it." The two books are being published simultaneously, explained Foster, because "there's a certain integrity in doing them together. Even though they're for two different audiences, they form a whole."

Both author and editor believe that readers will be drawn to the books despite their potentially challenging content. "I was a big Jungle Book fan as a kid," Gerstein said, "so I would think the fantasy of living in the wild is something that a child could connect with. It's what we all go through: we start off as animals and learn to be civilized and educated." Foster believes that readers will be "fascinated" by Victor, and "also feel a lot of compassion -- maybe even pity -- for him."

"I have never been drawn into a story so completely," admitted Gerstein, now 62. "The question that I keep coming back to is 'What are we?' More and more as I grow older, I'm amazed at what a difficult thing it is to be a human being."
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