Author/illustrator tells Olde Orchard students to reach for the

Olde Orchard art teacher Rob Sidders, left, and guest author/illustrator Mordicai Gerstein stand at the Twin Towers erected in the Peace Garden at the eastside school. Each year the school installs a permanent piece of artwork in honor of their guest author. This year’s guest won the 2004 Caldecott  Medal for "The Man Who Walked Between the Towers," a juvenile book about the French aerialist Philippe Petit, who performed on a tightrope between the World Trade Center towers in 1974.

Once you find something you like, you work at it every day, award-winning author/illustrator Mordicai Gerstein told  students at Olde Orchard Alternative Elementary school on Author Day May 15.

Gerstein, who won the 2004 Caldecott Award for his juvenile book "The Man Who Walked Between the Towers," entertained students with stories of his life as an artist, toured the school to view art work the students did after reading his books.

"I started drawing on the floor," he told students as he drew on a crumpled sheet of paper. "When I started walking, I started drawing on the walls. And when I started drawing on my little brother, that’s when my parents bought me an easel."

By the time he had finished his light-hearted story about early drawing, he had drawn a prehistoric elephant  on the paper he said resembled the walls of a cave.

"I have terrible handwriting," he admitted. "And I was a terrible speller. I figured if I illustrated my spelling tests, I’d get a better grade."

He didn’t reveal whether he got a better grade, but said one thing that surprised him was that he went on to become an author.

Gerstein, who has written and illustrated 31 books since 1983, said three things are necessary for an artist: something to draw on, something to draw with, and imagination.

His first rule of being an artist is to mess up the paper. "Attack it, don’t be afraid of making a mistake."

Another rule is working at the craft every day.

Besides the books he has written and illustrated, he has illustrated books of several other authors, including his wife, Susan Yard Harris.

As for putting the stories down on paper, "I did not know I had these stories in my mind, my imagination, until I sat down and started writing. If there is a question I don’t know the answer to, that for me is the start of a story."

That’s how his award-winning book came into being. He drew as he told students the story of making the friendship of a Frenchman in New York who juggled on a unicycle and rode the unicycle on a rope.

Kindergartner Esperanza Grogan shows her picture in the center of a flower in a display about "How I Have Grown in Kindergarten." Each child wrote an achievement they reached this academic year connected to the book "Leaving the Nest." by Mordeicai Gerstein who was a guest author/illustrator at Olde Orchard Elementary School.

He remembered this entertainer, Philippe Petit, had strung a strong cable between the two World Trade Center towers under construction in August 1974. But it was after Sept. 11, 2001, that he began putting that incident down on paper.

The book tells the story of how Petit and friends worked one night to stretch a cable the 150 feet between the two buildings a quarter of a mile above the ground, so that by morning he was walking across the chasm.

Of course, the act resulted in his arrest, but the sentence was light – entertaining children in the parks.

Since Gerstein wrote the book after the two towers had been brought down, he ended his book with the fact that this was a memory, like the two towers themselves.

Fifth-grade students, after reading the book, transformed their hallway into a little New York. A cord stretched between towers at several feet apart on opposite sides of the hall.

Students made shoes and wrote three goals on the shoes and hung them from the cord. At the other end were items students made after a geographical/historical study of New York.

Each year, art teacher Rob Sidders oversees the construction of a permanent piece of art to remember their guest. This year he erected a scale replica of the twin towers in the school’s Peace Garden. He planted two 13-foot, six-by-six posts in the ground. The two were only inches apart. On each sidewere small slats that each of the students from kindergarten through fifth grade painted with their version of a positive message.

This was the 21st year an author/illustrator has visited the school. As Gerstein toured the building and saw the work dedicated to past visitors, he saw paintings that resembled wood prints on the wall as a tribute to the first visitor, Ashley Bryan.

"I know him," he said. "I got a lot of inspiration from him."

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