When children’s book author and illustrator Mordicai Gerstein asked a group of students at Booth Hill Elementary School how many of them liked to draw, almost all the youngsters raised their hands to indicate they did.
“My mother told me I started drawing before I could walk,” Gerstein then told students. “I was still in my diapers, crawling.”
But he didn’t become a writer and illustrator of books until he was in his late 40s, after a successful career doing animation for TV and advertising.
“Before that, I never dreamed I’d be an author,” he said. “Then I tapped into my imagination and all these stories were there.”
Gerstein now has published more than 40 books, including some for older readers as well. The Massachusetts resident also illustrates books for other authors.
He is perhaps best known for “The Man Who Walked Between the Towers,” a picture book focusing on a French high-wire artist who in 1974 took an unauthorized walk between the World Trade Center buildings.
He won the Caldecott Medal for the book, published two years after the 9/11 attack. It was made into an animated short film.
Gerstein spoke to Booth Hill students — from kindergarten to fourth grade — during the school’s annual Author’s Day, when a writer is invited to discuss his or her love for literacy. Author’s Day takes place on the same day as Literacy Night at Booth Hill.
A highlight of his presentations was the importance of using one’s imagination.
“Your imagination is the most powerful tool you have,” Gerstein told students, who eagerly asked questions of the author during four presentations in the school library.
“Everyone has imagination,” he said. “This room is full of imagination.”
When discussing how big someone’s imagination can be, he fondly recalled a youngster who once told him, “My imagination is bigger than I can imagine.”
Student: ‘He’s really cool’
Youngsters at Booth Hill were impressed with Gerstein. “He’s really cool,” said third grader Will Dwyer. “He writes lots of different books and usually illustrates them, too.”
Moataz Mulla, a third grader, called the visiting author “amazing” because he writes in so many genres.
Andrew Flamini, a third grader, said his favorite Gerstein book is “The Man Who Walked Between the Towers.”
An enriching experience
Booth Hill Principal Kathleen Sheehy said having Gerstein talk to students was enlightening. “The children have read many of his books,” she said. “The books are so artistic and historically or authentically based, with great messages.”
Meredith DeSousa, the school’s media specialist, said she reads Gerstein’s books every year to students. “They love them, and it’s so nice of him to come,” she said.
DeSousa introduced Gerstein to students as “someone who has a wonderful imagination,” who can come up with so many different ideas.
Ying Moi, a Booth Hill mother who helps coordinate Author’s Day for the PTO, said Gerstein’s visit was an enriching experience for children.
“The kids can learn from the author’s imagination and creative process,” Moi said. “And seeing the children’s reaction is wonderful.”
Gerstein talked about how he comes up with book ideas and then does research, often in libraries.
He said his ideas can come from newspapers, books, TV, family and friends, and even pets. “Sometimes I’m just walking down the road and I think, ‘Wow, that would make a great story,’” he said.
“Even my own stories are surprising to me,” Gerstein said. “I don’t know how they’re going to end. I just keep writing and writing to find out what is going to happen.”
The creative process
He told students he makes plenty of mistakes during the creative process. “That’s how I learn,” he said, explaining it’s also why he always has an eraser and sketches in pencil before using pen and ink.
“If you want to be an artist, you can’t be afraid to make a mess,” he said.
At one point, to demonstrate the point, Gerstein crumbled up a large piece of drawing paper and then drew a sketch based on the creases that had been created in the paper.
He said no one really knows when the first drawing was made by a human, but — as one student correctly guessed — it dates back to when people lived in caves.
“We’re still drawing and it’s still magic,” he said.
Gerstein told students about his next book, which tells the story of a young boy waking up in the middle of the night with his cat and discovering what he called “the night world,” when everything in his house and yard is dark and different than during the daytime.
“I think the world is so fascinating,” he said. “You have to keep your eyes open or you’ll miss something.”