Tuesday, July 10, 2007

The Man Who Walked Between the Towers

Non-fiction biographies can be tough to write. Let me tell you about one that I consider a masterpiece of the genre: the 2004 Caldecott medal winner The Man Who Walked Between the Towers by Mordecai Gerstein.

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.


  1. I read this recently on your suggestion, Susan, and I agree it's a terrific book. But at the same time, I found myself wondering about it, about the reasoning behind the walk, and what it conveys to the audience.

    If you wanted to know why Philippe attempted the walk, he would probably respond as George Mallory did about Everest: "Because it was there." And to me, that's a beautiful, existential reason for doing something.

    At the same time, the book brings home the idea that while the walk was beautiful, it was dangerous, disruptive, and illegal. The book in some ways makes light of this (he's sentenced to perform for kids in Central Park).

    So is this book sending a mixed message, or even a subversive one?

    (I certainly hope so, as I am all for children doing things that are dangerous, disruptive, and illegal.)

    1. It's telling exactly what happened--he was sentenced to perform for kids in Central Park. The book doesn't "make light" of anything; it simply reports the facts. And if you go to youtube, you can see a news report from that day. When asked why he did it, Petitte said (I'm paraphrasing), "Why? There is no why. I see a beautiful place to stretch my wire, and I must do it." .What good would throwing him in jail have done? You think because of what he did there was a rash of people trying to tightrope walk between high buildings?

  2. Good point. Most of the objections that I've heard about the book have to do with the fact that it's about the World Trade Center and that it mentions September 11th.

    But yes, I agree, it's interesting to think about the implications of the walk.