"The best children's stories are wisdom dipped in art and words." -Peter Reynolds

Monday, January 27, 2014

The Man Who Walked Between the Towers

"Once there were two towers side by side." This is the first sentence of the nonfiction picture book The Man Who Walked Between the Towers by Mordicai Gerstein. I believe the first sentence of a book sets the theme for the entire story and this sentence does not disappoint. The towers stood side by side in strength and dignity. But in memory, there are still there. In this book, Gerstein tells the brave true story of Philippe Petit while paying a respectful tribute to 9/11.

The cover of this text is an immediate draw-in for children and adults alike. What a thrilling scene we have been thrown into without even reading! This book is sure to promise adventure and suspense. The story begins explaining the setting: the infamous New York City. It is then that we are introduced to our main character, a then nameless man, who is a unicycle street performer. However, his favorite performance act is walking and dancing on a rope he tied between trees. While describing this man’s love for this job, the illustrations are brightly colored, lots of blue skies, and framed with a thin black border. Then, the man notices the twin towers and decides he wants to walk on rope in the space between the towers. The illustration’s point of view is from behind the man as he stares at these two, enormous buildings. But from where the reader is looking, the man looks almost as big and mighty as the buildings. Perhaps this was Gerstein’s way of exhibiting this tightrope walker’s bravery and confidence in his dreams and in himself. The man has a flashback (shown by a squiggly border) to when he danced on a wire in Paris and the authorities thought he was crazy. On to bigger and better adventures!

It is not until we are introduced to the conflict of the story (that this man wants to tightrope between the twin towers but is afraid they won’t let him), that we learn his name. Philippe. Perhaps not giving the character’s name right away was Gerstein’s way of giving the reader a non-biased first perspective of his story. He gave the reader a chance to pretend they were in Philippe’s shoes. What would you do?

The story continues as Philippe and his friends set up his wire across the two towers during the night but not without some difficulty. The artwork on these pages is dark shades of blue and purple. These colors illicit a peaceful and tranquil mood for Philippe which would have been a nerve wracking time for anyone else! They finish setting up the wire just as the sun is beginning to rise and the people below begin their day with this astonishing fleet. “He was not afraid. He felt alone and happy and absolutely free,” Gerstein wrote as birds flew fearlessly around him. There are two fold out pages at this time; one to show the vast distance of which Philippe was dominating and one to show the enormity of the towers. The effect of these two over-sized pages does not go unnoticed as the reader comprehends how difficult and amazing of a task this was. It was humorous to watch Philippe taunt the policeman as he enjoyed himself on the rope. But just when the reader starts to realize he HAS to come down some time, it begins to rain (similar to the disappointment we feel), and Philippe gives himself up.  Despite being arrested and going to court, Philippe still holds a smile. He continues to hold his positive attitude as he later performed in the park for the children of the city.

The end of the story caught my attention. I wondered how and if Gerstein would address 9/11. He did so tastefully and positively. “Now the towers are gone,” is matched with a NYC skyline without the towers. The sky is blue and the birds are singing. It is difficult to tell whether the white masses are clouds or smoke; I think it could be purposefully be either depending on your perspective. Do you choose to be negative or positive? Then, on the last page the illustration shows the skyline again but this time with an outline of the twin towers and Philippe walking across. “But in memory, as if imprinted on the sky, the towers are still there.”  Instead of focusing on the negativity and evil that surrounded 9/11, Gerstein decided to end the book with a positive memory that NYC shared with the twin towers and Philippe Petit. 

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