With more than thirty books to his credit, including the 2004 Caldecott Medal for The Man Who Walked Between the Towers, Mordicai Gerstein is always busy with new projects. I was interested in learning how Mordicai got started illustrating children’s books. I knew that he had illustrated many of Elizabeth Levy’s books. Mordicai met her at a party given by a mutual friend in New York City. At the time, he was working on animated films and painting. Elizabeth was a young writer and had a story that needed an illustrator. She sold her first “something queer” story with his illustrations overnight and their relationship as author and illustrator continues to this day. Among the more popular of these titles are The Cool Ghoul Mystery and The Mixed-up Mask Mystery. Their working relationship has lasted more than thirty years.
After illustrating other authors’ books, Mordicai decided to try his hand at writing his own. It took two years to produce his first picture book–Arnold of the Ducks. The annotation for this title sums it up pretty well–“Mistaken for a fish by a nearsighted pelican and deposited with a family of ducks, young Arnold learns to swim, fly, and eat like a duck until his curiosity finally leads him back to his human family.” It must have been quite gratifying to have his first book included among the nominees for the Kentucky Bluegrass Award in 1985. Even more exciting is the news that this book will be republished in an updated version by Roaring Brook.
I asked Mordicai if winning the Caldecott had a big impact on his life and work. He said that when he got the call it was wonderful, and he felt terrific because it was an acknowledgement of his work and the years that he has spent honing his skills as an author and artist. It has also allowed him a certain amount of latitude–he can be a more selective about the projects he will undertake. It also means that publishers are willing to take a little more risk as he expands into other areas. One of these new areas for him will be graphic novels.
The legend believed by the residents of Pupickton for hundreds of years concerns the shape of the nearby mountain. The tale is a giant fell in love with the moon. When his pleas and cries over thousands of years remain unanswered, the giant fell asleep. It is his sleeping form under centuries of growing grass and forests that the villagers fear to wake. To avoid the destruction of the town, everyone has always remained very quiet–until Carolinda Clatter is born. As the text declares in large, upper-case letters, she is NOISY and un-hush-able. When she does wake the giant, it becomes her task to get him back to sleep. Fortunately, the giant enjoys her singing, and she is able to persuade him to sleep again, happily dreaming of his love, the moon. A scratchy black outline creates a very human-looking, bearded giant in the beginning, along with the subsequent old-fashioned town and the very noisy Carolinda. Transparent watercolors add appropriate emotional tone. A double-page scene of all the townsfolk hiding under their beds and a series of vignettes showing Carolinda’s unsuccessful attempts to remain quiet are particularly effective in creating a comic mode. The printing of some dialog in tiny print to show the quiet is also amusing. The message about the soothing effect of music is conveyed beautifully in the deep blues of the giant’s dream. 2005, Roaring Brook Press, $16.95. Ages 4 to 8. Reviewer: Ken Marantz and Sylvia Marantz (Children’s Literature).
Sholom’s Treasure: How Sholom Aleichem Became a Writer
Illustrated by Mordicai Gerstein
Silverman has based this story of the great Yiddish writer’s youth on Sholom Aleichem’s (1859-1916) autobiography, From the Fair. Through his mischievous adventures in one-room schools–shared with strict teacher, teacher’s wife and toddlers, and miscellaneous livestock–one can clearly see the beginnings of the man who would become responsible for Fiddler on the Roof. Still, it is Caldecott-winner Mordicai Gerstein who brings little Sholom and his 19th century shtetl world to life. His loving pictures of home, windswept village, and snowy winter town make the circumscribed Pale of Settlement universe of Russian Jews real. As for Sholom himself, Gerstein has sketched him mocking and mimicking so well that it becomes obvious the lad’s calling in a later century would be that of a stand-up comedian. The subplots of father worship and a stepmother worthy of the Brothers Grimm flesh out the tale nicely, making it a universally good read for youngsters and parents alike. 2005, Farrar Straus and Giroux, $16.00. Ages 5 to 9. Reviewer: Kathleen Karr (Children’s Literature).
A Hare-Raising-Tail Elizabeth Levy
Illustrated by Mordicai Gerstein
Levy writes funny stories and loves puns. This one is no exception. It is a story told from a dog’s viewpoint. A dog who has a map of the world on his body and is also inhabited by a talking flea. Fletcher, as he becomes known after his adoption from the animal shelter by Jill, has a series of narrow escapes. He is accused of harming the class rabbit during show-and-tell, but due to his genes and some help from Jasper the flea, he manages to sniff out the rabbit napper. It is a fairly predictable story, but right on target for the audience. A bit of mystery, lots of humor, increasing tension, a red herring and a final solution that makes the humans and animals all look good. Part of the “Ready-for-Chapters” series. 2002, Aladdin/Simon & Schuster, $3.99. Ages 7 to 10. Reviewer: Marilyn Courtot (Children’s Literature).
Mordicai will do up to 3 sessions in a day to groups as large as 200 students, but he prefers smaller groups ranging from 50 to 100 students. His fee is $2,000 per day. He focuses on imagination, stories and drawing and his programs are appropriate for grades K-12.
Almost two years later, students at Haycock are still talking about Mordicai Gerstein’s joyful visit. As students walk our halls and pass the framed pictures he drew in presentations, they repeatedly cite his comic notations. When we reread his books, children are excited that he was actually at our school. I can’t imagine as wonderful an author visit as his was that day. He is a person of great depth and wisdom mostly. Gerstein is an illustrator first, but our students were inspired by how he shared his difficulties with spelling and how writing did not come as easily for him. Nevertheless, he persevered. All four of his presentations were specifically geared for the age level of the students and incredibly well received. It’s a day we will remember always.
Barbara Bosworth, Reading Specialist, Haycock Elementary School, VA
To learn more about Mordicai and his publications please visit www.mordicaigerstein.com.