Then Writer of Books for Children
by Edward Shanahan
On one of the first sunny spring days when you can have the window
open, Mordicai Gerstein sits in his third floor studio in Haydenville
chatting about his professional work as children's book illustrator
He first rented the space about 15 years ago when the house he and
wife moved into in Northampton proved too small to allow him to
work at home.
Across the hall, author Tracy Kidder wrote two of his books; a pair
of photographers has just moved into the space next door.
Most days of the year, Gerstein, 65, bikes to and from his Haydenville
retreat, sometimes abandonning Route 9 to travel over North Farms
Road or to take the route through Leeds, or when his mood and weather
dictatoe, following Audubon Road to Williamsburg and then doubling
back to Haydenville.
"I did a lot of my bike riding in New York City," before moving
to this area in 1984, he explains, so he does not find bike travel
On the level where we sit, Gerstein does his painting and illustrating,
while his writing is done in the loft just above us, as if to keep
separate the two distinct talents he brings to his craft.
Gerstein's approach to producing a new book - he tries to publish
an average of two a year - is to rough out the first draft of the
story, usually with pencil and paper, although increasingly he is
writing on a computer, which he calls a "great gadget," even though
he is not enamored with "all that plastic and software."
Then comes the rewriting. "I love the pushing and the shaping,"
he says of the revision process.
Once he feels he has gotten the story "right," it is time to turn
to the illustrations, which can take from two to six months for
a single book. He has yet to attempt computer-generated art. "I
still have my brushes and paints and paper. I use oil paint. I used
to work with watercolors, but oil paint can do everything I want
to do. It is infinitely forgiving and rich."
Gerstein's development as a children's book author had its roots
in art, rather than literature. He was born in Los Angeles where
after high school he enrolled in the Chouinard Art Institute to
study fine and applied art; he studied with Don Graham, a drawing
instructor who taught classes at the Walt Disney studio.
As a struggling artist, Gerstein went to work in 1955 for an animation
studio, UPA, which had broken away from Disney and produced animated
films of works by James Thurber and Ludwig Bemelsman in the style
of those writers, not the "cute little animals" that Disney favored.
Then came a television series - Gerald McBoing Boing - for which
Gerstein performed all kinds of artistic chores from story and character
creation to design.
In 1957, he moved to New York. "Then Los Angeles was a backwater,
it was very provincial," he said. "New York, that was where the
painters were, that was where the Metropolitan Museum was."
Newly married and about to become a parent, Gerstein toiled in many
facets of the New York art world; he did animated films, painted,
sculpted, and drew a cartoon series for the Village Voice newspaper,
called "Inner Man."
In the early 1970s, he met children's book author, Elizabeth Levy,
who asked Gerstein to collaborate with her by illustrating a mystery
story book for children. The first title "Something Queer Is Going
On," was a hit that eventually spawned a multi-volume series.
Working with Levy, Gerstein felt he finally had found himself and
an outlet for his art. "I wanted to do something that was more of
my own and even allow me to make money; it was a long-time dream."
Over time, he collaborated with Levy on more than a dozen books,
asnd they have recently signed a contract to write and illustrate
a new series for slightly older children, as a result, he says "there
will be more writing and less illustrating."
According to Gerstein, when he began working with Levy , it never
occurred to him to write a work on his own.
But in the early 1980s Gerstein took a year off from all commercial
work "just to write," and write he did. In a frenzy of creativity,
he wrote some 10 books, which were published over a period of time.
The first book, which he both wrote and illustrated, "Arnold of
the Ducks" came out in 1983 and was critical and commerical success,
although he says he has never really produced a blockbuster.
Writing "is a matter of persistence," he said. "It took 10 years
of writing to find out what it was I was going to do, to find out
how to do it."
What stirs his imagination, what makes for a winning children's
book? "I have no idea, I have no idea," he says. "I do things that
take me over, it has to mean something to me."
His wife, Susan, who is also an illustrator, has to like the story,
and he shows it to his 15-year-old daughter, Risa. But, in the end,
for each book, "I really just develop it for myself."
To be an effective story, Gerstein explains, "it's a matter of telling
it as clearly, as engagingly as possible. It has to be something
that's going to work on different levels."
"What I really like my books to do is provoke questions, essential
questions," such as that which emerges from his most recent book,
"The Wild Boy": "What makes a human being? That's an old question,"
Which is more important - story or art? "I think you should have
both, although strong illustrations can go a long way to make a
What children's book authors does he admire? "Everyone was influenced
by Maurice Sendak," says Gerstein. "He changed the world, he changed
the nature of the picture book." Also Dr. Seuss "was a tremendous
influence," and "Alice in Wonderland" "is one of my favorite books
of any kind."
Of the current children's book scene, Gerstein says: "I don't think
it's true children don't read. They sure are reading Harry Potter
and going on to other books. It's gratifying it's such a hit."
Compared to "manufactured products" like "Goosebumps", Gerstein
says of the Harry Potter books: "This is literature. It makes it
a better world. I'm jealous, of course, but (author J.R. Rowling)
is a very gifted writer."
In 1984, Gerstein and his present wife, Susan Yard Harris, moved
from New York the Hilltowns for the summer, an area Harris was familiar
with from time spent at the Cummington School for the Arts. Summer
became fall, then winter and they stayed another year and finally
in 1986 they moved to Northampton with their year-old daughter.
"I never decided to leave New York, but we stayed here," Gerstein
said. "We came up for the summer and never left." He goes to New
York from time to time to meet with his editors and check out the
museums, "but I don't need to live there. Northampton is a wonderful
place as everyone knows."
Any plans to write books for adults? : "I think about it, it's a
big leap for me. That would be going out on a limb."
What about painting for pleasure, rather than work? "I would love
to do more, but I have no time to do stuff I won't sell."
His next work is a picture book biography of the composer Charles
Ives, titled "What Charlie Heard."
As if his writing and illustrating don't demand enough of him, between
November and May, Gerstein goes on the road to various parts of
the country visiting schools and libraries, drawing and talking
about his books, and "trying to get children involved."
It is clear that Mordicai Gerstein is more than fully engaged even
when he heads off on his bike well before daylight for the trip
from Crescent Street to Haydenville and later returning home often
after the sun has set.