Saturday, May 7, 2011

The Man Who Walked Between the Towers

Written and Illustrated By: Mordicai Gerstein

The Man Who Walked Between the Towers, written and illustrated by Mordicai Gerstein, is the fascinating story of tightrope walker, Philippe Petit, and his remarkable walk between the twin towers on August 7, 1974.

Gerstein manages to capture the essence of this infamous event through his poetic language and beautiful ink-and-oil paintings.  The story of Philippe Petit has been told before.  In fact, Petit himself wrote about the event in his book, To Reach the Clouds: My High Wire Walk Between the Towers.  Petit’s book recounts the event in 256 pages.  In just thirty pages, readers of TMWWBTT are able to feel the emotion and tension surrounding the main event. 

Gerstein begins the book with, “Once there were two towers side by side.  They were each a quarter of a mile high; one thousand three hundred and forty feet.  The tallest buildings in New York City.”  In describing how tall the towers are, Gerstein emphasizes the height by using both miles and feet.  Gerstein continues throughout the book emphasizing the greatness of this feat through numbers.  For example, later in the story when describing the cable that Petit would walk, he wrote, “To his end of the strong line, Philippe tied the cable on which he would walk.  It was five-eighths of an inch thick.”  As a reader, we wonder how anyone could balance on a rope that is less than an inch thick. 

He introduces Petit using short and simple sentences that describes him as a street performer—“He rode a unicycle.  He juggled balls and fiery torches.  But most of all he loved to walk and dance on a rope he tied between two trees.”  Gerstein leads us to understand Petit as being one who could not resist the adventure and thrill associated with tightrope walking.  “He looked not at the towers but at the space between them and thought, what a wonderful place to stretch a rope; a wire on which to walk.  Once the idea came to him he knew he had to do it!  If he saw three balls, he had to juggle.  If he saw two towers, he had to walk!  That’s how he was.”  The order that Gerstein chose to write the words is poetic and crafted to be read aloud. 

Gerstein also uses the technique of understatement.  He simply writes, “Now the towers are gone,” after describing how Petit was charged with performing in the park for the children of the city as “punishment” for this illegal act.  Gerstein does not need to go into more depth than that about the reasons for the towers being gone—the statement is powerful enough on its own and may leave younger readers, who are unaware of the history with the towers, wondering what happened.

Gerstein accompanies the powerful text with a combination of full-bleed and framed illustrations that create tension and emotion through the use of perspective, color, and placement.  The cover of the book immediately draws readers in—as we see a close-up of Petit’s feet, walking on a thin wire, high above New York City—beneath him, we see small speckles of cars and even a bird—signifying how up he really is.
As the book begins, Gerstein uses bright colors, which cause the reader to feel the happiness that Petit is feeling.  When the book begins, our perspective of the towers is as they are seen from ground level.  We are looking up at the towers just as Petit is; however, we know he sees something that we do not.  For example, in one small-framed illustration, Petit is holding up a rope in his hands from the ground and stretching it between the towers.  We can sense that he is imagining himself up on the rope between the towers.

As Petit begins to reflect on the idea of walking between the towers, we can sense his discouragement—he would not be allowed to walk between the towers if he asked permission.  He reflected that there must be another way.  In this section of the book, Gerstein uses wobbly and unsteady frames around muted, dark colored illustrations. 

When Petit and his friends decide on a plan to sneak into the towers, the illustrations get even darker with shades of purple, blue, and black most prevalent.  Even the frames are now surrounded by a muted blue color instead of the bright white of before.  We can sense the danger of Petit’s actions during this section—knowing he is doing something he should not be doing—but wanting him to do it anyway. 

When it comes time for Petit to make his walk, the colors become bright again, although we can see some grey clouds in the sky and guess that it might rain.  It is during the walk that Gerstein’s use of perspective is at its best.  Gerstein lets us see the perspective of Petit as he steps out on the tight rope and looks down below at the teeny tiny cars on the road.  He then gives us the perspective from down below looking up.  He shows Petit as just a speck, barely recognizable, on the rope.  By having a foldout page that extends this illustration, we sense the feeling of how high up Petit is and we cannot help but wonder if he will make it across alive. 

At one point, Gerstein gives us the perspective of looking from above Petit, as we see him lying across the wire taking a rest.  The accompanying text, “He even lay down to rest.  The city and harbor spread beneath him.  The sky surrounded him.  Seagulls flew under and over.  As long as he stayed on the wire he was free.”

As the story comes to the end, Gerstein shows us the NYC skyline without the towers and we feel sadness, but as we turn to the last page, Gerstein states, “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.”  Accompanying this text is the same image from the previous page, with the towers back in place—Petit a small speck walking in between.  This leaves us with the happy memory that forever can change the way we remember the towers.

Note: There is an animated short-film of this story.  Click here in order to view it on YouTube.  If you’d like to see photographs from the real event, click here. 

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