Mordicai Gerstein, a children’s author and illustrator whose imaginative, exuberant works included a celebrated picture book in which he set out to “resurrect” the fallen World Trade Center towers — if only on the page — by retelling the true story of a French tightrope walker who once crisscrossed the air between them, died Sept. 24 at his home in Westhampton, Mass. He was 83.
The cause was esophageal cancer, said his wife, Susan Yard Harris.
Mr. Gerstein did not begin illustrating children’s books until he was nearly 40, after working for more than a decade in film and TV animation. He found in picture books a vehicle of expression far more magical than any television screen, one with limitless possibilities for exploration and discovery.
“For me, picture books are little theaters one holds in the hand and operates by turning the pages,” he once wrote. “I make my books for everyone, not just children. All of us are either children or have been children.”
He created more than 40 books, filling them with artwork that invited comparisons to the paintings of Marc Chagall for the color and energy that animated them. His themes and source material knew almost no boundaries, drawing as they did from Greek mythology, the Old Testament and ancient Jewish traditions, “The Tibetan Book of the Dead,” the natural world, and news stories that caught Mr. Gerstein’s fancy.
In the latter category was “The Man Who Walked Between the Towers” (2003), winner of the Caldecott Medal, the most prestigious honor for children’s book illustrations. The book was based on the exploits of Philippe Petit, a French aerialist who in 1974 strung a cable between the twin towers in Lower Manhattan and then stunned New Yorkers a quarter-mile below by walking, even dancing, on the tightrope for 45 minutes.
Mr. Gerstein, who worked for years in New York and knew Petit as a unicycle-riding, torch-juggling street performer, missed Petit’s master performance at the World Trade Center that breezy August morning. But he read about it in the news and, enthralled by the idea, filed it away in his mind.
He returned to it soon after Sept. 11, 2001, when the twin towers were struck by hijacked airplanes in the deadliest terrorist attack ever on American soil. As the buildings collapsed, Mr. Gerstein said, he remembered Petit’s tightrope walk — that jaunty display of derring-do in a place that, after 9/11, would forever be remembered for the tragedy that had happened there.
“I didn’t want to just tell the story of the walk — I wanted the book to be the walk between cardboard covers,” Publishers Weekly quoted him as saying. “I wanted this book to cause real vertigo, to put the reader, child or adult — and of course myself — on the wire.”
He began the book in the fashion of fairy tales and stories from time immemorial: “Once there were two towers side by side . . .” His illustrations of Petit on the tightrope relied on skillful use of perspective, bringing the reader into the sky with the birds soaring above.
And then the flight ends.
“Now the towers are gone,” read the final passage, leaving a grown-up to decide whether or when to explain to the child how or why. “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.”
Like the feat it recounted, “The Man Who Walked Between the Towers” was “itself a daredevil act,” literary reporter David Mehegan wrote in the Boston Globe, “a story of New York’s World Trade Center filled with wit and laughter, without smoke, flame, or horror.”
The book “is a milestone,” he continued. “It proves that it is possible to speak of the twin towers, even with children, in a context other than murderous destruction.”
Mordicai Menachem Mendel Gerstein was born in Los Angeles on Nov. 24, 1935. His father was a wholesale grocer who wrote plays in his retirement. His mother, a homemaker, instilled in her son a love of books and artwork.
Mr. Gerstein studied at the Chouinard Art Institute in California, now part of the California Institute of the Arts, before beginning his animation career in Los Angeles and then New York. He did film, television and commercial work before making his first foray into children’s literature in the 1970s as the illustrator of the “Something Queer Is Going On” mystery series by writer Elizabeth Levy, with whom he worked for decades.
He began to illustrate his own works in the 1980s, beginning with “Arnold of the Ducks,” a story about a boy taken in and raised by ducks. In an early display of Mr. Gerstein’s whimsy, the boy is returned to his family by a kite, although the quacking of ducks will always exert a pull on his heart. Mr. Gerstein said the manuscript was rejected seven times before it was published in 1983.
In “What Charlie Heard” (2002), he said he sought to help children see sound — as well as silence — on the page in his account of the life of the American modernist composer Charles Ives. His picture book “The Wild Boy,” selected by the New York Times as one of the best illustrated books of 1998, as well as the young-adult novel “Victor” (also 1998), were based on the true story of a feral boy who emerged from the woods of southern France in the winter of 1800 and was civilized — to a degree — by a young doctor.
“I’m always looking for things that puzzle and disturb or amuse me,” he once said. “I make books for people, most of whom happen to be children, and I try to address the most essential parts of all of us.”
Mr. Gerstein’s marriage to Sandra MacDonald ended in divorce. Their son Jesse Gerstein died in 1991. Survivors include his wife of 35 years, Susan Yard Harris of Westhampton; a son from his first marriage, Aram Gerstein of San Francisco; a daughter from his second marriage, Risa Harris-Gerstein of Brooklyn; a brother; two grandchildren; and a great-grandson.
As time passed after the publication of “The Man Who Walked Between the Towers,” the book gathered new young readers, with new grown-ups to guide them through the story. Instead of parents who had turned off the TV to spare their children the news footage of airplanes tearing through skyscrapers, there were parents who had seen those images when they were young, and their own children, who would know 9/11 only as an event in history.
“It’s almost a fairy tale,” Mr. Gerstein told the Globe, speaking of his book. “It’s a way to restore the towers to children whose only image of them is on fire. It shows them in another context — how big they were, and the space between them. I resurrect them in the mind.”