Mordicai Gerstein is the author/illustrator of dozens of books, and he has also written or illustrated more than a dozen others.
- What are you working on now?
I just began final illustrations on The Sleeping Gypsy about the painting with the same name by French painter Henri Rousseau. I’ve known the painting since I was a kid. My mother made a scrapbook for me, and one of the images she cut out and put in the book was The Sleeping Gypsy. I was fascinated with what was going on in the picture, such as What’s the lion eating? The book is about what I imagine is going on in that picture.
I am also working on a story about a whale and a graphic novel on the Greek God, Pan. Pan was big during the Victorian era. I remember reading about Pan in a work by Rudyard Kipling.
- What influenced you when you were a child to lead to what you do today? (books, tv shows, movies, other media?)
Everything. I was an avid reader. I loved Alice in Wonderland and Mary Poppins and reading natural history: about animals, whales, deep sea divers, African explorers. I think books generate books. I like to recycle old stories. I loved the Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling, and my first book was about a wild child (Arnold of the Ducks), who was raised by ducks.
- Do you do school visits? If so, what is your favorite part of visiting a school?
Yes. I love the presentations and the connections with the kids. It’s amazing that I can do it because I was never a public speaker. I draw, and kids are always spellbound. I talk a lot these days about the power of imagination and getting in touch with what your stories are. Imagination is invisible until you write it down. When you hold a book in your hand you are holding the author’s imagination.
- How did you start writing children’s books? Can you speak about how as an artist you came to both illustrate and write the stories?
I had no intention of becoming a writer but always drew and painted. In art school I took a cartooning class then landed a job at UPA, an animation studio specializing in flat, two-dimensional animation – not Disney like. They sent me to New York to work on commercials. In New York all of the abstract expressionists were there, and Elizabeth Levy, a mystery writer, asked me to illustrate her books. She showed publishers my sketches, and they asked me to illustrate her series (Something Queer is Going On; Something Queer in the Library etc.). I wanted to write my own book, but I had no confidence in my writing. It took me ten years until I wrote Arnold of the Ducks. After that the floodgates were open. Writing helped me find out what was lurking in my mind. I wrote another duck book, called Follow Me, set in China about lost ducks finding their way home. Then I did a book called The Room then Prince Sparrow, and they just kept coming.
- Your art is different from book to book. Different styles. Can you talk about that?
Each story is its own and I have to find the style that is best for the story. For Mountains of Tibet I wanted to do it in a style of mandalas (circular design). The colors and the shape all help tell the story.
I did a non-fiction picture book about a wild child raised by wolves found in France in the 1800’s. I approached this work and others first with pen and ink then I might use oil, mixed media, or acrylics.
- What advice do you have for aspiring writers and artists?
Write, write, write. Get your work out! Find other writers, a work group to share your writing, and get critiques. Get feedback and expose your work to as many people as you can. My advice is the same for illustrators. It important to be persistent.
- What are your strategies for when you struggle with your writing or illustrating?
Keep going at it. Try it from different angles until you find a solution. With writing sometimes a book can take years, some weeks, some months. Once at a conference I read a chapter of a new book, and after reading it MT Anderson came to me and asked me “What happens next?!” I said “I do not know because I haven’t finished it.” Some books take years. Sometimes you have to get out of the way of your mind. Let the story reveal itself.
Deeth Ellis is the Head Librarian at Boston Latin School