Do you remember when you were a kid and you had a favorite book that you made your parents read to you over and over again? You heard it so many times that you could recite it from memory, and yet you never got bored with it. The book became a part of who you were, and you wanted everyone around you to hear it, too.
The Man Who Walked Between the Towers by Mordicai Gerstein is like that for me. I’ve personally read the book more times than I can count, and I share it with everyone I know. Every class I’ve ever had has heard it, as well as my mother, my sisters, my friends, and anyone who will listen. I’ve become that little kid again, wanting everyone I know to share in this part of my life.
So, why? Of all the picture books in the world, what makes this one special? Picture this: August 7, 1974. The Twin Towers are almost done being built. You are walking on a street in NYC and you look up. There, tied between the two towers is a rope. On that rope is a man, walking back and forth. As Mordicai Gerstein says, “Everyone stopped and looked up. They gasped and stared. It was astonishing. It was terrifying and beautiful. A quarter of a mile up in the sky someone was dancing.” You are scared, but more than that you are in awe of this man who dares to do this.
If I had to choose the number one reason why I fell in love with The Man Who Walked Between the Towers, and why my children love it, it is because of the great sense of awe that you are left with when you are done. How can you not be awe-struck by this story? The Man Who Walked Between the Towers is the tale of Philippe Petit who, in 1974, strung a rope between the Twin Towers and walked. As Mordicai Gerstein tells you, though, he didn’t just walk—he “danced, ran, and knelt in a salute upon the wire. He even lay down to rest.” When you are done reading this beautifully crafted story, the number one question you will hear (if you haven’t already divulged the truth), is “Did this really happen?” Then, you get to be the one who says “Yes, yes it did” and watch as people sit back in absolute amazement. That’s why I love to share it to people. It is a little known story that you get to gift to other—I’ve never met someone who didn’t love this book.
Although it is no longer in print, I highly recommend you find a used copy of Philippe Petit’s memoir To Reach the Clouds, so that you can show the amazing pictures inside. I wouldn’t recommend letting the kids read the book, but you must show them the amazing pictures of Petit laying on the wire, kneeling on the wire, and the picture of him balancing a policeman’s hat on his nose, just like the illustration in The Man Who Walked Between the Towers. This You Tube video has some of the pictures from Petit's book, but some of the best are still left out.
The way the words are crafted in The Man Who Walked Between the Towers, as well as the way the text and illustrations are laid out on the pages, builds excitement. Gerstein begins by telling us about the buildings being constructed and introduces us to Philippe Petit. We learn of his street performances and tightrope walking. Then, Gerstein posits the thought into our head of “Why not here, between these towers?” You are suddenly gripped with the thought of “No, he wouldn’t.” We build anticipation as we witness Philippe and his friends dress as construction workers to sneak into the towers, as well as the several snafus that happen along the way. Finally, beautifully, in pages that open up into a three-page spread, we get to watch Philippe perform his amazing act.
It is more than just his incredible act that makes me love this book. It is also a book that touches on September 11th. Mordicai Gerstein wrote a book about September 11th that didn’t delve into tragedy. Instead, he used his pages to remind us of the amazing acts we are able to do. He reminds us of our strength as humans, while still touching upon a day that no one in my generation will forget.
How do you teach children about such a horrific event? I feel like I have to read this book to my kids every year, but not so that they don’t forget, because a lot of them barely even know about the event. This year, for the first time ever, not a single child in my classroom was alive during September 11th. For them, it is very close to being just another thing in the past that has nothing to do with their life. Soon, if we don’t prevent it, September 11th will have no more relevance to their lives than the Spanish Inquisition or the Black Plague. By using books like this, we are able to teach our children about a day that changed our country. With The Man Who Walked Between the Towers, we are able to not only teach our children about a terrible day in our history, but remind us of our incredible strength and determination as human beings.