Mordicai Gerstein, Illustrator of Magical Worlds, Dies at 83


Mordicai Gerstein, a writer, illustrator and master storyteller whose books created magical worlds where young readers could ponder big questions, died on Sept. 24 at his home in Westhampton, Mass. He was 83.

His wife, Susan Yard Harris, herself an artist and illustrator, said the cause was metastatic esophageal cancer.

Mr. Gerstein wrote and illustrated more than 40 books. Although they were intended for children, they also resonated with adults.

They ranged across a variety of styles and subjects, including contemporary fantasy (“How to Bicycle to the Moon to Plant Sunflowers,” published in 2013), biblical retellings (“Noah and the Great Flood,” 1999) and Greek myths (“I Am Pan!,” 2016). Some were rooted in Jewish shtetl lore, and one (“The Mountains of Tibet,” 1987) sprang from the centuries-old “Tibetan Book of the Dead.”

Others, like “What Charlie Heard” (2002), were based on real people or events — in this case, the life of the composer Charles Ives.

His most famous book, “The Man Who Walked Between the Towers” (2003), which won the Caldecott Medal, tells of the breathtaking moment in 1974 when Philippe Petit, the French high-wire artist, secretly strung a cable between the twin towers of the World Trade Center and walked — and also danced and pranced — across. There was no net below, only slack-jawed New Yorkers looking up and wondering if he would make it.

Most of Mr. Gerstein’s books wrestled in some way with questions about human behavior that worked themselves out through storytelling, though they were never preachy or saccharine. And they did not shrink from subjects like the inevitability of death.

In “The Shadow of a Flying Bird” (1994), Moses asks to live longer than his 120 years, which to him seem like one short day. God replies that life is like the shadow of a flying bird: “Even if you lived a thousand years, at the end it would seem but one day.” The story is a retelling of a midrash, a rabbinical commentary on the Scriptures.

“All stories, in one way or another, are about this mystery of being a human being,” Mr. Gerstein said in a 2005 interview with “What are we here for and what are we doing? What are we supposed to do? How am I supposed to be a kid? How do I be a teenager? How do I be me?”

He often called the business of being human messy, difficult, even incomprehensible — and yet wonderful. Despite the weightiness of some of his subjects, he was a mirthful man who reveled in life’s mysteries, took delight in mischief-making and retained his capacity for wonder. Many of his books were laugh-out-loud funny.

“Mordicai had an unrestrained joy about life,” said his longtime friend Richard Michelson, a poet and author and the owner of the R. Michelson Galleries in Northampton, Mass., which represented Mr. Gerstein for more than three decades.

Mr. Michelson contrasted Mr. Gerstein’s work with that of another author he knew well, Maurice Sendak, who in “Where the Wild Things Are” and other books explored the melancholy and terror in children’s lives.

“Maurice plumbed the darkness in the joy,” Mr. Michelson said. “Mordicai brought out the joy in the darkness.”

That was evident in “The Man Who Walked Between the Towers,” which Mr. Gerstein wrote after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. It was a sign of his creative spirit that out of that tragedy, he chose to celebrate Mr. Petit’s fantastical feat, a glorious day for the towers. But true to his style, he didn’t ignore the towers’ fate.

After several pages of rollicking illustrations, one page is blank, except for these words: “Now the towers are gone.” That simple sentence lets adults decide how much to impart. The book ends with this:

“But in memory, as if imprinted on the sky, the towers are still there. And part of that memory is the joyful morning, August 7, 1974, when Philippe Petit walked between them in the air.”

Mr. Gerstein dedicated the book to Mr. Petit, “for the gifts of his courage, his impeccable art and his mythic sense of mischief.”

Mordicai Menachem Mendel Gerstein was born in Los Angeles on Nov. 24, 1935. His father, Samuel, was a wholesale grocer, a restaurant owner and later a playwright. His mother, Faye (Chornow) Gerstein, was a homemaker who nurtured his early love of art by making scrapbooks of famous paintings for him and hanging reproductions of Picasso and Cézanne on the walls of their tiny basement flat.

He attended the Chouinard Institute of Art in Los Angeles (now the California Institute of the Arts). A longtime fan of cartoons, he went to work as an artist-designer for the UPA animation studio in 1956.

In 1957 he married Sandra MacDonald, a painter; they divorced in 1969. He married Ms. Harris in 1984.

In addition to his wife, Mr. Gerstein is survived by their daughter, Risa Faye Harris-Gerstein; a son, Aram Amadeus Gerstein, from his first marriage; his brother, Robert Sar Gerstein; two grandchildren; and one great-grandson. Another son from his first marriage, Jesse Simcha Gerstein, died in 1991.

UPA transferred Mr. Gerstein to its Manhattan studio in 1957. He was thrilled. As he wrote on his website, he saw New York “as the world capital of the arts.”

He designed and directed animated television commercials and children’s shows, a job he liked because it drew on multiple disciplines. “Even a 30-second commercial involved drawing and painting, as well as storytelling, not to mention actors, music and sound effects,” he said.

A turning point came in 1970 when he met Elizabeth Levy, an author who was writing a children’s mystery about two sleuths, Jill and her best friend, Gwen, and Jill’s basset hound, Fletcher, who never moved. The book, “Something Queer Is Going On,” was published in 1973 with Mr. Gerstein’s illustrations.

That led to their collaboration on a popular series of a dozen books over the next three decades. During the 1970s and ’80s, Mr. Gerstein also directed four animated holiday specials for NBC based on the Berenstain Bears book series, including the popular “The Berenstain Bears’ Christmas Tree.”

It was working on the “Something Queer” series that prompted him to think about creating his own picture books — a medium he loved, he said on his website, because “it was film and drawing and theater all in one.”

His first book as author and illustrator, “Arnold of the Ducks,” about a boy raised by ducks, was rejected by seven publishers before being published in 1983. Despite the slow start, Mr. Gerstein would eventually receive multiple awards and honors.

His last book to be published, “I Am Hermes!” (2019), was edited by Grace Maccarone, the executive editor at Holiday House. After Mr. Gerstein died, she told Publishers Weekly in a fitting tribute:

“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!’”

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