Great Illustrated Books

The Man Who Walked Between The Towers

By Mordicai Gerstein

Roaring Brook Press, 2003
Pages : 40
Suggested Ages: 5 and Up
ISBN: 0761317910

"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."

A young street performer who "loved to walk and dance on a rope he tied between two trees" looked at the Twin Towers and got an idea. He had already walked a wire between the steeples of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. Now he began to plan how he could carry out a startling new feat. With the help of friends, in the middle of the night, he sneaked to the roof and stretched a cable seven-eighths of an inch thick and 140 feet long between the tops of the just completed towers of the World Trade Center in New York City. How did they get the cable from the top of one building to the other? They tied it to an arrow and shot it across with a bow. At just past dawn on August 7, 1974, 24-year-old French aerialist, Philippe Petit, stepped out onto the wire with his twenty-eight foot balancing pole. For nearly an hour he mesmerized people below, running, dancing, kneeling, and even lying down upon the wire, all the while eluding the police on the roof, bellowing into bullhorns, "You're under arrest!"

Gerstein's detailed blue-infused paintings of the towers from Petit's perspective up high and from incredulous spectators in the streets below are masterful and breathtaking, with two fold-out three-paneled views of New York City that will give you vertigo. A love story to the Twin Towers, this true, bittersweet, life-affirming tribute, winner of the 2004 Caldecott Medal, will inspire gasps of disbelief from readers. When the book first came out, I shared it with fifth grade classes at Joyce Kilmer School in Milltown, NJ. As I read each page, they kept saying things like, "That's not true, right?" and "This is a fiction story, right?" "Yes, it absolutely is true," I told them, looking at their disbelieving faces. "I remember when it happened. This is one of those 'Don't Try This at Home, Kids' stories." "You've got that right!" one boy said. I placed a long rope on floor for children to walk across and try to keep their balance, so they could get an idea of how hard it is to do, even on the ground. Read this in conjunction with Emily Arnold McCully's Mirette on the High Wire, another Caldecott winner about a high wire artist.

Now, eight years later, children have no knowledge of September 11 and why that was such a traumatic event for their parents and elders. If you want to talk about it, Gerstein's book is a fine way to connect. The book's only allusion to the attacks is at the end: "Now the towers are gone." You can compare the first page illustration of the towers soaring up to the sky, the other buildings in front dwarfed by comparison, to the illustration at the end, with billowing gray clouds where the towers once stood. The final illustration shows the ghostly outline of the towers, with a wire stretched between them and a tiny figure crossing it. "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."

There's a fairly comprehensive article about Petit's life and daredevil activities on Wikipedia at A film about Petit's walk, Man on Wire, won the 2008 Academy Award for Best Documentary.

If you want to further commemorate 9/11, follow up with Fireboat: The Heroic Adventures of the John J. Harvey, Maira Kalman's astonishing picture book account of the John J. Harvey fireboat and its crew who helped fight the fires at the Twin Towers and pumped water to the fire trucks for four days and nights. Our world has changed since 9/11, and we're still struggling with the fallout. How do we handle political trauma with our kids? As the saying goes, think globally, act locally. Ask your kids to recall large or small acts of kindness, compassion, and selflessness they have participated in or witnessed in their lives and how they have been affected or changed. What can we do to make the world a better place? And how and why did Philippe Petit's stunt, dubbed, at the time, the "Artistic Crime of the Century," turn into something we remember with such great affection today?

Reviewed by : JF.


If you love this book, then try:

Gerstein, Mordicai. What Charlie Heard: The Story of the Composer Charles Ives. Farrar, 2002.

Gerstein, Mordicai. The Wild Boy. Farrar, 1998.

Harwayne, Shelley, ed. Messages to Ground Zero: Children Respond to September 11, 2001. Heinemann, 2002.

Heard, Georgia, comp. This Place I Know: Poems of Comfort. Candlewick, 2002.

Hopkinson, Deborah. Sky Boys: How They Built the Empire State Building. Schwartz & Wade, 2006.

Jakobsen, Kathy. My New York. Little, Brown, 2003.

Kalman, Maira. Fireboat: The Heroic Adventures of the John J. Harvey. Putnam, 2002.

Levitas, Mitchell, ed. The New York Times: A Nation Challenged: A Visual History of 9/11 and Its Aftermath, Young Reader's Edition. Scholastic, 2002.

McCully, Emily Arnold. Mirette on the High Wire. Putnam, 1992.

McCully, Emily Arnold. Starring Mirette & Bellini. Putnam, 1977.

Osborne, Mary Pope. New York's Bravest. Knopf, 2002.

Roth, Susan L. It's Still a Dog's New York. National Geographic, 2002.

Winter, Jeanette. The Librarian of Basra: A True Story from Iraq. Harcourt, 2005.

Winter, Jeanette. September Roses. Farrar, 2004.

Critics have said

With its graceful majesty and mythic overtones, this unique and uplifting book is at once a portrait of a larger-than-life individual and a memorial to the towers and the lives associated with them.
School Library Journal