The Man Who Walked Between the Towers

A True Story

Cover of The Man Who Walked Between the Towers
Macmillan

Summary

Author and illustrator Mordicai Gerstein was so awed by a once-in-a-lifetime event that that he was inspired to create his 2004 Caldecott Medal winner, The Man Who Walked Between the Towers. This informational picture book, especially for children in kindergarten through sixth grade, tells the daring and mischievous feat of a young French trapeze artist, Philippe Petit, the man who really did walk between the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York City years before the 2001 terrorist attacks.

The Feat

Mordicai Gerstein has brought to life an accurate retelling of that day in 1974 when Philippe Petit walked on a 5/8” cable strung between the two towers of the World Trade Center.  The author found this accomplishment so wondrous and fascinating he dedicated the picture book to the performer: “To Philippe Petit for the gifts of his courage, his impeccable art, and his mythic sense of mischief.”

Gerstein chose to start the story with a fairy-tale-like beginning: “Once there were two towers side by side. They were each a quarter of a mile high; one thousand three hundred and forty feet.  The tallest buildings in New York City”. 

Using numerous resources that are listed in the acknowledgement, the author has offered a spare, precise, almost poetic, text that is suited for school age children.  Almost as amazing an accomplishment as the wire walk is all of the years of planning and plotting necessary to achieve this clever but dangerous act.

Knowing it would be against the law, Philippe and three of his friends, disguised as construction workers, hauled a 440-pound reel of cable and other materials onto the roof of the South Tower.  Attaching the cable over a 140 feet distance to the North Tower is another fascinating story in itself.

The Illustrations

The illustrations of pen and ink lines and light oil have the feel of a sketchbook, as though the artist actually created the illustrations while witnessing this unbelievable event.

  The pictures so perfectly report the event that the text is almost not necessary.  The title page shows the Towers in winter, under construction, with snow falling and dark clouds. 

With a turn of the page, it’s a lovely summer day after the Towers are completed, and we see Philippe tipping his hat to the objects of his obsession and dreams.  The small horizontal pictures on some of the pages look like movie frames while the jagged-edged pictures are Philippe’s memories from past adventures in Paris.  Gerstein shows the passage of time changing the color of the borders that surround the panels from white to blue-grey as Petite and his friends prepare to launch the cable from early evening and through the night. 

A picture of the cable that Philippe used is the actual size of 5/8 inch thick.  With his first step on the wire there is a tight shot that focuses on his foot;  that illustration is repeated on the front and back cover with New York City spread out below. 

It is the gatefold pages that are truly remarkable.  The first is a borderless horizontal page and shows the awesome view from the perspective of this daredevil performer.  There is an abrupt switch of perspective on the following vertical gatefold as the people watch from the ground, which emphasizes the distance to the top of the towers.

  The policeman’s hat dropping over the edge also underscores the reality of falling and the danger involved. 

There are several incidents portrayed only in the illustrations, such as the rain falling that day, Phillippe’s longing look at the seagull as he is handcuffed, and his joyful spirit as he balances an officer’s hat on his nose.  The final two pages are the perfect ending.  The first showing the skyline without the towers then an imprint showing how we remember the towers with Philippe on the wire.

Artist and Illustrator Mordicai Gerstein

At four-and-a-half years old, Mordicai Gerstein visited the Wabash Avenue Branch of the Los Angeles public library and took home his first book And To Think That I Saw It On Mulberry Street by Dr Seuss.  From a young boy, he always wanted to be a painter and he was encouraged by his parents.

  His mother cut photos of famous paintings from Life Magazine and made a scrapbook museum for him that he studied again and again. 

When he graduated from Chouinard Institute of Art in Los Angeles, he moved to New York City where he designed and directed animated television commercials.  In 1970 everything changed when Elizabeth Levy invited him to illustrate a mystery called Something Queer is Going On. It became a series of books that they continued for more than thirty years. 

After some encouragement by several editors, he began writing his own books until Arnold of the Ducks was finally published after being turned down by seven publishers.  His books come from many sources, such as biographies, myths and legends, and his own imagination.  In the 1970‘s he first saw Philippe Petit perform on the sidewalks of New York City. 

When Mordicai Gerstein read in the New York Times about Philippe’s walk, he thought it was one of the most amazing things anyone had ever done.  With the destruction of the towers in the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, he knew he wanted to tell the true story of what actually happened on Philippe’s walk. 

At age of 68, Gerstein received the 2004 Randolph Caldecott Medal for picture book illustration for The Man Who Walked Between The Towers.  According to Gerstein, “after September 11, any story about the Towers was going to be about the destruction of the Towers. So it was unnecessary to tell about the destruction directly.”

(Sources: Quotation by Petit: Marcus, Leonard S., Seven Artists and Their Paths to the Caldecott Medal. Walker & Company (2008), page 49; Mordicai Gerstein’s website)

My Recommendation

The Man Who Walked Between the Towers is one of those special books that will capture your heart so that you’ll want to experience it over and over again.  The picture book is is a stunning visual experience with its masterful art and a text that simply reports what is happening in the pictures.  The scratchy ink lines and light oils bring a lightness to the look of the Twin Towers that today evokes much sadness and painful memories.

 

So much could be said about the art of each illustration, but the double page spread of Philippe lying on the wire is almost hard to look at without a feeling of dizziness.  An interesting discussion with school age children could include the wire walk as an act of bravery or foolishness and the fairness or injustice of his punishment. 

Sharing some background information with children (Share age-appropriate portions of the DVD documentary Man On Wire (2008) and Petit’s book To Reach the Cloud: My High Wire Walk Between the Towers by Philippe Petit) will bring a greater appreciation of Gerstein’s book. Mordicai Gerstein has created a book not only about the memory of Petit’s walk but a tribute to the symbolism of the World Trade Center and the lives that were lost.  (Roaring Brook Press, a division of Millbrook Press, Macmillan, 2003. ISBN: 9781606861899) 

More Randolph Caldecott Medal Winners

For more information about current and former Caldecott Medal winners, see my article 75 Years of Randolph Caldecott Medal Winners, which includes a list of all of the Medal winners since the award was first given and book reviews of many picture books from over the years, including such recent winners as Erin Stead for A Sick Day for Amos McGee and Jerry Pinkney for The Lion and the Mouse, as well as much earlier winners, such as Maurice Sendak for Where the Wild Things Are  and Virginia Lee Burton for The Little House.