Weekly children’s literature series at Mount Holyoke kicks off with Mordicai Gerstein

By Gina Lopez

(Gina Lopez/Collegian)

I remember the feeling of my fuzzy slippers and my white canopy bed. I remember the glow of my nightlight. But the thing I remember the most about getting ready for bed as a child were the bedtime stories. I always longed to hear just one more, fighting heavy eyelids.

A personal favorite story that stays with me today is “Tell Me Something Happy Before I Go to Sleep,” by Joyce Dunbar. Many of us hold our favorite memories from children’s books and carry the lessons we learn from them with us. We remember that sharing is caring, stealing is bad and eating our vegetables will make us superheroes—I’m still waiting on that one.

Regardless of the message or the specific narrative, children’s literature serves an immeasurable purpose in the lives of kids.

In fact, Margaret K. McElderry, a popular children’s book publisher who died just six years ago, once stated that she saw children’s books as the foundation of the publishing industry. “If you don’t catch them young you won’t have any adult readers,” she said.

Mount Holyoke College both recognizes and rejoices in this belief during its 2017 Children’s Literature Series, which takes place every Thursday at 4 p.m. in the Cassani Room in Shattuck Hall.

This past Thursday, I attended the first of five events sponsored by the Margaret Knox McElderry Children’s Literature Fund and the Mount Holyoke College department of English. It was hosted by Mordicai Gerstein, a seasoned children’s book author and illustrator.

Surrounded by wooden bookcases, clothbound books and dusty Persian rugs, Gerstein began his talk with a personal anecdote from his childhood about being caught by his mother doodling on the floor after being left alone for a short time.

Gerstein said although he “never dreamed of being a writer,” ever since that childhood moment his family has joked he started drawing before he could walk, and he feels a true connection to that memory,

Later, Gerstein discussed his creative process, points of inspiration and the familiar sense of writer’s block.

Gerstein said he’s always viewed books as a tangible representation of someone’s imagination. “Reading a book is like holding someone else’s imagination in your hands,” he said.

Gerstein noted that when he first began his career he often wrote stories from his childhood, embellishing details along the way and filling in gaps in his memory with what he wished happened next.

Regardless of the particular events in the story, Gerstein stressed the importance of a children’s books organization. “There’s a sequential art in picture books,” he said. “It’s like a little theater in your head.”

Valuing his own sense of sequential order during the talk, Gerstein broke his creative process down for the audience.

He explained he often starts with long-form, his hand acting as a scribe for whatever comes to mind. He said his original ideas often stem from another book, a personal event or a social issue.

Then comes the clarification process, where Gerstein works to remove all the words that don’t help to shape the overall picture.

His third step involves taking the text and breaking it down into single lines so they can be easily illustrated on a page, almost like poetry.

After this, he begins doodling the scenes living in his head, playing around with the pages to figure out exactly what he wants to represent in his illustrations.

Gerstein stressed the chosen words and images must have an equally clear impact for the page to be cohesive. This is important in all literature, but even more so for children.

Once his text is decidedly concise he begins to piece together what he called his “dummy book.”

The “dummy book” contains a collage of word clippings from previous drafts, with slowly developing illustrations.

Gerstein said his personal rule of thumb is to organize the book in way that makes people want to keep turning. To do this, he puts an unanswered question or unsolved mystery on the right hand page prompting people to flip and continue on with the story.

A component of drafting the actual book Gerstein said he’s always struggled with is deciding what point of view to write the But one thing remains true in all his pieces, and that is he writes to “find out what he knows” and for the general love of storytelling.

Gerstein used the word “mythosphere” meaning the whole world is made of stories waiting to be told. He added that he’s particularly drawn to narratives with a human and animal connection and ones with people doing unusual and extraordinary things in the face of some kind of adversity.

When asked about his expansive career and if he’d always planned to create such a large repertoire, Gerstein responded “I never knew what was going to come next … sometimes I thought nothing ever would.”

During the Q-and-A after the talk, Gerstein was asked who is favorite author was growing up. He responded with a look of bemusement and said he couldn’t choose. But he added that he’d always appreciated the strange and funny tales of “Alice in Wonderland” and “Through the Looking Glass” by Lewis Carroll. Adding they were like nothing he’d read before.

The discussion was full of candid moments from Gerstein, such as when he spoke of the days he used to love using oil paint—before his wife became allergic, that is.

In his final statements, Gerstein added the believed in the importance of children’s literature because “as a child your life and its events are terrifically important … perhaps even more so than now.”

Gina Lopez can be reached at [email protected]