It's the story of Philippe Petit’s daring tightrope walk between the two towers of the World Trade Center. Petit performed the walk clandestinely in 1974 while the two iconic buildings were still under construction. Mordecai Gerstein read about Petit’s walk shortly after in happened and tried several times to write a book about the event. The Man Who Walked Between the Towers is the result of nearly thirty years of germination.
The illustrations are simultaneously realistic and fanciful and reflect the combination of mechanics and magic in Petit’s extraordinary feat. Petit's book To Reach the Clouds contains numerous photographic images of the walk but it is Gerstein's illustrations that give the reader vertigo. Gerstein was not confined to the roof of the tower as Petit’s real life photographers were, and was therefore able to use his imagination to portray a much larger variety of angles and viewpoints.
The pictures methodically deepen in intensity and propel the story forward. The book begins with small framed vertical illustrations that parallel the planning stage of the adventure. The pictures stretch to long horizontal vistas as Petit constructs his wire and strings it across the towers. As the drama of the actual walk between the towers unfolds; the white space disappears completely and the pictures spread fully across both pages. Even two pages are not enough to convey the majesty of the walk itself, and the picture spills onto a third page which physically lengthens the image. The unique gatefold pages suddenly and dramatically transform the reader’s perspective until they are walking above the clouds with Petit.
Gerstein employs the combined media of oil paint and pen and ink drawings extremely effectively. He conveys images as small as the tendons on Petit's ankles and as large as the view above New York City. The twin towers appear in virtually every illustration in the book. They dominate the book just as they dominated Petit’s imagination. Gerstein continuously contrasts the strong, vertical lines of the towers with the horizontal line of the tightrope. The color palette changes throughout in response to the mood and the action. When Petit and his friends are working feverishly in the moonlight, the dark colors provide an air of secrecy. As the sun rises, so does the color intensity, which gradually gives way to bright hues.
The simple and straightforward text leads the reader step-by-step through Petit's thoughts and preparation. “I didn't want to just tell the story of the walk – I wanted the book to be the walk between cardboard covers," said Gerstein in his Caldecott Acceptance speech. He achieves this with a methodical chronicle of Petit's motivations and actions so that the reader can clearly understand every step of the process. This "how-to" explanation is well suited to children who are fascinated with the mechanics of an event.
The Man Who Walked Between the Towers is a book about the power of memory. It is not only the memory of the Petit’s walk; but a broader collective memory about the symbolism of the World Trade Center. Gerstein invokes this idea from the first page as he begins with the words “Once there were two towers side by side.” He unfolds the specifics of Petit’s walk; then pauses to reflect on the twin towers again before the books’ conclusion. The impermanent nature of both the walk and the towers is united into one sentence; “Now the towers are gone.” Both the solid, physical buildings and the magical, ephemeral tightrope walk now belong to the world of memory.
I got to meet Mordecai Gerstein briefly at an ALA convention. He answered a question I've always been dying to ask... what does Philippe Petit think about the book based on him? Gerstein's answer was succinct... Philippe Petit loves the book. His only issue was the thickness of rope used, which Gerstein changed in a later edition of the book.
There's a paperback edition of The Man Who Walked Between the Towers, although the hardcover is my favorite.
To Reach the Clouds is currently out of print, but is readily available in many libraries.
The Man Who Walked Between the Towers soars every time I read it... the way Philippe Petit soared above the World Trade Center.