Can you imagine walking between the twin towers on a tight rope? Would you believe me if I told you someone did? Honestly, it really happened on August 7, 1974! The brave soul’s name was Philippe Petit, a French street performer and aerialist. Mordicai Gerstein wrote and illustrated this 2004 Caldecott Medal winning book.
The story begins with Philippe entertaining the crowds on the streets of New York. As he walked the rope that he had tied between the trees he noticed another opportunity to push himself to the limits with his daredevil acts. “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.” This was not his first attempt at something of this magnitude. He also walked between the steeples of the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. Philippe knew this was illegal but he felt compelled to do it. “If he saw two towers, he had to walk! That’s how he was.” Philippe and his friends devised a plan and somehow they managed to pull it off. It goes without saying there is a tremendous amount of work and determination. They were able to get a four-hundred-and-forty pound reel of cable and other equipment to the top of the unfinished towers. They worked throughout the night to secure Philippe’s seven-eighths of an inch thick rope. As the sun rose Philippe stepped out onto the wire. For almost an hour Philippe walked, danced, ran, knelt and even lied down on this rope. It wasn’t until Philippe was completely satisfied that he returned to the edge of the tower to face his consequences.
While this is an amazing story of a man’s courage, determination, and profound skill. It is also a phenomenally well illustrated story that captures Philippe’s talent and joy as he performs this unthinkable act. Right from the cover Gerstein draws us in to this experience. There is an up-close illustration of Philippe’s foot as he balances on a rope high above the city. When the front and back of the book are extended completely we can see that he is in the middle of his act.
Gerstein uses glossy paper which can be distancing but the distancing can convey a sense of staidness, serenity, or stillness. One might not think that is appropriate for such an extreme act but Philippe was at peace with what he was doing. This is evident throughout the book as he is standing on the rope with his hair blowing in the wind, walking back and forth for almost an hour. He didn’t just walk across once to complete his mission, he performed a variety of acts until he felt satisfied. The ink and oil paintings of pale blues and greens reflect the mood for Philippe.
Gerstein’s use of line and perspective reaches the reader’s emotions. One can’t help but feel nervous and anxious before the event as he is hanging upside down on top of the tower trying to set up the rope or during the event as he is walking and lying down on the rope. Gerstein captures the joy and freedom Philippe is experiencing as a bird is flying above him and he is stretched out on the wire as if he is saying, “I’m as free as a bird.” One can’t help but notice the street far below. There are two magnificent gate folds that draw the reader in to Philippe’s perspective from high above the twin towers. With the turn of the page there is the second gate fold that transforms the perspective to that of the person on the street. Very quickly our emotions change from fear to safety.
Gerstein uses a variety of framing techniques throughout the book. On some pages there are multiple frames to show the succession of events. As the story reaches its climax there are full bleed illustrations with the two gate folds that bring the reader into the main event. Then we return to the framed illustrations after Philippe is content with his experience.
Mordiacai Gerstein produced an amazing book. His writing was poetic and his illustrations profound. Together they captured Philippe Petit’s courageous character. He portrayed his incredible determination, profound skill, and the thrill he sought as he performed such courageous acts.