Volume 73, Number 45 | March 10 -16, 2004

Book on Petit’s ’74 Twin Towers walk wins award

By Jane Van Ingen

Mordicai Gerstein, who has written more than 30 children’s books, has proven that you can write about the Twin Towers without focusing on the horrors of 9/11. His latest picture book, “The Man Who Walked Between the Towers,” is about the tightrope artist, Philippe Petit. In 1974, before the World Trade Center was completed, Petit was a young daredevil who had walked between the steeples of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. Walking between the Trade Center towers would be a little more complicated, and slightly illegal.

But Petit was undeterred. He snuck into the towers with some friends, dressed as construction workers. Late at night, they strung the 440-pound reel of cable, which was only 5/8th of an inch thick, across the towers. They used a bow and arrow to shoot a leader line across the gap. After dawn, he took his 28-foot balancing pole and started walking across the wire, feeling happy, free and unafraid. It didn’t take long before a crowd appeared and the police shouted with bullhorns for him to get down. But Petit walked, ran, danced, skipped and even lay down on the wire for almost an hour before he walked back to the towers and was arrested. The judge was lenient — he ordered Petit to perform for some children in a New York City park. Ironically, during one of these performances, Petit fell when some boys jerked on the wire. But he caught himself.

The book, aimed at readers ages 5 to 8, has 43 surprisingly realistic paintings, including two pullout centerfolds. Children can feel the pedestrians’ shock and the police’s outrage. In the drawings that depict Petit on the tightrope, the bridges, harbor, piers, neighboring boroughs and even the street traffic are wonderfully depicted. If you look closely, many of Gerstein’s paintings of the towers have an orange squiggle on top. Near the end of the book, he states simply, “Now the towers are gone” and shows the naked skyline.

Gerstein did not witness Petit’s act on the towers, though he witnessed many of his other street performances. For research, he used Petit’s book about his walk, “To Reach the Clouds,” and numerous other magazine and newspaper articles. He lived in Lower Manhattan for 25 years before moving to Northampton, Mass., in 1983, where he currently resides with his wife and family. According to an interview in the Boston Globe, Gerstein had no real love for the towers. They displaced his studio on Fulton St. — much in the same way the proposed Nets stadium will displace residents on a two-block strip in Brooklyn. Once the towers were completed, the buildings were an eyesore, in his view.

Yet after Sept. 11, Gerstein remembered Petit’s courageous walk. He told the Globe that the book is his way of writing about the terrorist attacks. After being rejected by numerous publishers, it was published last September by Roaring Brook Press, a division of Millbrook Press. (Located in Connecticut, the press recently filed for bankruptcy. Publishers Weekly reports that all three Millbrook divisions are up for sale.) It has been praised by critics, including the Chicago Tribune, Horn Book, Kirkus Reviews, New York Times, School Library Journal and the Washington Post. Most notably, it recently won the 2004 Randolph Caldecott Medal and was praised by the American Library Association.

Sales have been slow. Amazon’s sales rank is 724 and it’s not even available on Barnes and Noble’s Web site. A reporter was not able to find copies at the Barnes and Noble in Chelsea or at The Strand.

However, a bookseller at Seventh Ave. Books for Kids in Park Slope said all the local bookstores were actively trying to get copies since the book won the Caldecott. Peter Glassman, the owner at Books of Wonder, a children’s bookstore in Chelsea, said the book sold well even before it won an award, especially when Gerstein gave a reading at the store. Glassman is impressed by the book and wasn’t at all surprised when the book won the award.

“I think it’s a beautiful book and it deserved the medal,” said Glassman. “It tells a wonderful story. It’s unusual for a press to win the Caldecott two years in a row and it’s as big of a deal for the author as it is for the publisher.”


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