Caldecott Award-winning children’s author and illustrator Mordicai Gerstein, widely lauded for his mixed-media compositions featuring fluid pen-and-ink lines, died September 24 in Northampton, Mass. He was 83.
Gerstein was born November 24, 1935 in Los Angeles, Calif. He grew up in East L.A. and the San Fernando Valley, where, from an early age, he would create illustrations for favorite books he read. Upon graduating high school, he studied painting in New Mexico, receiving private instruction. He then returned to California and from 1953–1956 attended the Chouinard Art Institute in downtown L.A. Gerstein left art school to take a job at United Productions of America, where he worked as both an artist and designer and continued to paint in his free time.
The year 1957 brought lots of change for Gerstein; he married Sandra MacDonald, a painter, and moved with her to New York City. He found work as a freelance animation designer and director and also did sculpture, as well as editorial illustration and a weekly comic for the Village Voice. Gerstein taught himself the technique of color separation and his skill in that arena enabled him to incorporate various media into his illustration work, something that set him apart. In 1969, Gerstein and MacDonald were divorced, and he founded the animation company Summer Star Productions, which he headed for a decade.
Gerstein’s path to children’s book illustration was an accidental one. In a 2004 interview with TeachingBooks.net, Gerstein said his publishing career got its start when he met a young writer named Elizabeth Levy at a party in 1970. By his account, Levy asked him if he would illustrate a story she had written, “a mystery about two little girls and their dog who never moved.” He readily accepted the new challenge. When Levy presented her tale, and Gerstein’s drawings for it, to an editor she knew, Gerstein said “the editor called the next day and said, ‘This is just what we’re looking for.’ So, all of a sudden, I was a children’s book illustrator.” That book, Something Queer Is Going On, was published by Delacorte in 1973 and was the first in the Something Queer series, which spanned more than 11 titles and 20 years. Gerstein illustrated additional series by Levy including the Fletcher mystery series.
By the early 1980s, Gerstein had married artist and illustrator Susan Yard Harris and had begun trying to write the kinds of picture books he wanted to illustrate. His first self-illustrated work was Arnold of the Ducks, about a boy raised by ducks. It was initially rejected by seven publishers, according to his autobiographical essay on his website, before he found the right match at Harper & Row, which published the title in 1983.
Gerstein said in several interviews and speeches that writing did not come easily to him. He sought to tell stories about things that fascinated him, and over time he found inspiration in myths (Tales of Pan, Harper, 1986), newspaper and magazine articles/true stories (The Wild Boy, FSG, 1998), the Bible (The White Ram, Holiday House, 2006; winner of the National Jewish Book Award), compelling biographies (Sparrow Jack, FSG, 2003), and his own family history (The Shadow of a Flying Bird, Hyperion, 1994). “It seems clear to me that everything in the world needs to know about every other thing in the world,” he said in his acceptance speech for the 2004 Boston Globe-Horn Book Award for Picture Book. “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.”
With The Man Who Walked Between the Towers (Roaring Brook, 2003), which won the 2004 Caldecott Medal, Gerstein found a way to pay tribute to Philippe Petit, whose 1974 tightrope walk between the twin towers of New York City’s World Trade Center fascinated the author, and also to honor the famous building that had been part of his life and home as a longtime New Yorker. In his Caldecott acceptance speech, Gerstein noted that Petit’s own book about his walk informed the way Gerstein conceived the illustrations. “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.”
Simon Boughton, publishing director at Norton Young Readers, edited The Man Who Walked Between the Towers during his tenure as publisher at Roaring Brook Press. He shared this remembrance: “Mordicai was a special man and someone who taught me a great deal about storytelling, and I’m sad that we’ve lost him. Among many memories of working with him, one is showing a very rough sketch dummy of The Man Who Walked Between the Towers at an ALA conference and seeing first one visitor, then another, and then several more, burst into tears over it. One of the things that ran through Mordicai’s work was a belief and delight in the power of artists, especially performative artists, to move us: musicians, composers, Philippe Petit etching an image of a little man walking a high wire against the New York skyline. I think his art had the same power. Certainly that book, at that moment, did.”
Alvina Ling, editor-in-chief at Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, told PW that she was “honored” to have worked with Gerstein on the picture books The First Drawing (2013) and The Night World (2015). “He was such a kind, gentle, thoughtful man, and truly brilliant,” she said. “He will be missed.”
Grace Maccarone, executive editor at Holiday House, edited Gerstein’s April 2019 title I Am Hermes! as well as The Sleeping Gypsy (2016) and a forthcoming work still in progress. She offered this tribute: “Mordicai was brilliant and indefatigable. After he had completed 250 masterful illustrations for I Am Hermes! in his 80th year, he told me it would probably be his last book. Of course, I understood. But I also knew he was still sketching and still thinking. So I asked him to consider creating an I Like to Read book, which could have as few as 10 vignettes. I was thrilled when he called to tell me he had sketched out a book titled Moose, Goose, and Mouse. It’s funny and joyful and just right for a first grader to read independently—and much more elaborate than 10 vignettes! In the beginning of the month, Mordicai called to tell me that he had completed the line work and that he had asked Jeff Mack to complete the color work. I knew it would be our last conversation.
"When I think about Mordicai, I think of a particular panel in I Am Hermes! The newborn Hermes goes outdoors for the first time and exclaims: 'THE WORLD! It’s even better than I expected. I love it!' "
In all, Gerstein created more than 40 books for young readers.