BY RENN ELKINS’20
“I have never dreamed of being a writer.”
These were the words that opened the compelling, inspiring and highly entertaining lecture delivered on Thursday, Feb. 16, by acclaimed children’s fiction writer Mordicai Gerstein. Gerstein’s visit was the first of a series hosted by Mount Holyoke College’s English department, which is set to feature several other authors of children’s literature in the coming weeks.
Gerstein’s talk encompassed a wide variety of subjects, beginning with his own childhood and creative discovery, and ending with an exclusive reading of his forthcoming picture book “The Boy and the Whale.” In describing the evolution of his career, he explained that he began as only an artist and a reader; he was in awe of writers, wondering how they could possibly conceive of their ideas.
He first began to tap into the wonders of his own fiction while writing about his own experience: specifically, an incident that occurred in kindergarten. Smiling, he told the audience how he distinctly recalls his indignation at a classmate who stood on a table and mocked his favorite teacher. “I pushed him off the table,” Gerstein said with no trace of embarrassment, “and then I ran.” He took refuge under a water fountain, and, strangely enough, couldn’t remember what happened after that. “But when I wrote about this,” he continued, “I kept going.” This anecdote led to one of the most potent statements of his hour-long speech: “I write to find out. Write what you know, people say, but I write to find out what I know.”
Gerstein showed no signs of sheepishness while explaining that he always takes his initial book ideas from other works. “I’ve gotten my stories from other stories,” he said, and mentioned how “The Jungle Book” by Rudyard Kipling was the main source of inspiration for his first publication, “Arnold of the Ducks.” As a child, he adored Kipling’s adventurous narrative, and wondered what a modern Mowgli might look like. This concept hatched “Arnold.” “I had so much fun writing that, finding out what happens to Arnold, whether he learns to fly,” he recalled. “He does learn to fly, to my delight.”
As for his process, Gerstein has a specific series of steps that he usually follows. The story, most often, comes before the pictures. After writing out his text in longhand, he types it and divides it line by line, then shortens it into poetic beats small enough to fit on a page without becoming overwhelming. He then prints these lines, cuts them apart and arranges them on a series of paper spreads of the approximate shape and size that he intends for his book to be. The process is very visual; he figures out different ways to balance the text and the rough sketches that he then builds around it.
The result is what he calls a “dummy book,” which has large pages with pencil sketches and taped-on words. He inks over the illustrations before sending the dummy into the publisher, but doesn’t paint them properly until after his book is accepted. This is a process that he knows well, he’s repeated it many times. As a matter of fact, his list of works is so extensive that he sometimes has trouble recalling a specific title.
For Gerstein, “The book happens as [I] write it.” His relationship with fiction is just that — a relationship. His writing gives to him just as much as he gives to his writing, and he puts no small amount of trust in it. “I never knew what was going to come next,” he said of his books, “At one point, I thought that nothing was going to come next, but it did. It always does.”
What is coming next, then? At the moment, he’s working on two projects: a memoir about his time as a 4-year-old and a fictional story about “a cat and the moon.” He spoke with delight of his forthcoming work, saying that he knows he will learn things he can’t yet imagine through the worlds that he’s going to create.