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Writing for Kids

Author and illustrator Mordicai Gerstein talks about his work

July 31 , 2006

Mordicai Gerstein
Mordicai Gerstein (Courtesy of Roaring Brook Press)

By Michelle Sheena
Scholastic Kids Press Corps

July 31, 2006—I recently had the chance to meet Mordicai Gerstein, author, illustrator, and recipient of the Caldecott Medal.

Listening to him read his book, The Man Who Walked Between The Towers, and actually holding a Caldecott Medal was an experience of a lifetime.

Here is a look at the man behind the book.

Scholastic News Online: What got you most interested in becoming an author/illustrator?
Mordicai Gerstein: It was after I [illustrated the] first couple of books with Elizabeth Levy. One of them was Something Queer is Going On, and I had such fun doing it that I [thought], “Wow, this is great.” I thought that maybe I could write my own book to illustrate, so I did.

SN Online:
What kind of encouragement or criticism did you receive?
Gerstein: There was a lot of encouragement and some criticism. People said, “Keep going.” So I was encouraged, but then they’d also say, “Try again, because this isn’t it.” Another thing that was really important to my writing was the writer’s workshops that I went to. There were a lot of writers, and everybody brought something to share and get input on. I think it’s good for people to jump in and comment on your writing because it’s hard to read your work as a reader and not the writer.

SN Online: Did you have a role model as a child?
Gerstein: Yes . . . pretty much comic book heroes and painters like Picasso and the artists who drew Superman and Batman and Bugs Bunny. Bugs Bunny was also a role model. So there were a lot of role models.

SN Online: What is it like to work with someone to create a book?
Gerstein: Well, it was fun working with Liz because we really liked working with each other’s stuff. I thought she was a wonderful writer and just in awe of her humor and ability to write really funny, interesting, soulful stuff with a third grade vocabulary. And she liked what I did, so we just hit it off. I’ve also done books with my wife, Susan Harris, and that was exciting . . . the hardest part was learning to tell each other what we didn’t like about each other’s stuff in a way that isn’t hurtful.

SN Online: How has being an author/illustrator affected your life?
Gerstein: It’s changed it completely because I used to make animated cartoons for TV. [Back] then, I worked with many other people. Whereas with a book, aside from your editor, you really work alone. On the other hand, I’ve traveled all over the world and met readers and kids in all kinds of places. And it also helps me to really explore my imagination.

SN Online: How do you usually get ideas for a story?
Gerstein: I just stay open and let them come. I don’t go find ideas, I have to accept the ideas that come to me. You can’t reject an idea and say, “Oh no, that’s stupid.” Write it down, at least make a note of it.

SN Online: Where do you find most of your research?
Gerstein: It depends, but these days, more and more on the Internet. It’s such a great resource. You know, I used to have to go to New York City and go to the main library to find research. But now I just go to Google like everybody else. You can find pretty much everything on [the Web].

SN Online: How does it feel to win a Caldecott?
Gerstein: Amazing, it’s a dream come true. It’s kind of unreal and it changes everything. It makes your books more known to more people, and I feel like I have more open doors. If more people know your books, then more people know you. It’s one of those things that I think every illustrator dreams of happening, and when it really does it‘s quite amazing.

SN Online: What do you think is the difference between illustrating your work and illustrating someone else’s?
Gerstein: The main difference is with my own work I can change the words to make better illustrations . . . When I write, I think like a writer then I turn over to the illustrator and I think, “Oh, do I have to draw that? How am I gonna do that?” So if it’s something that doesn’t make sense to draw, or if it doesn’t work, I can go back and become the writer and change it. Whereas if I’m illustrating somebody else’s work, that’s harder to do.

SN Online: Any last thoughts you’d like to share?
Gerstein: Readers are important to our world. Readers are all connected to each other . . . being a reader, you’re connected to the writers, and being a writer connects me to that reader, so we have this big network of readers and we share each other’s imagination. So keep reading.


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