Solving Impossible Moments with Peter Sís

h1 October 17th, 2019 by jules


It’s a pleasure to have a visit today from internationally acclaimed author-illustrator Peter Sís, whose work is currently on exhibit at the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art.

Born in Czechoslovakia in 1949 and arriving here in the States in 1982, Sís has been making children’s books for over 30 years. He won the coveted 2012 Hans Christian Andersen Medal; received three Caldecott Honors (in 2008 for The Wall: Growing Up Behind the Iron Curtain; 1999 for Tibet Through the Red Box; and 1997 for Starry Messenger); received multiple New York Times Best Illustrated Children’s Book awards, as well as multiple Boston Globe-Horn Book Awards; was awarded the 2008 Sibert Award (for The Wall); gave the 2012 May Hill Arbuthnot Honor Lecture; was the first children’s book illustrator to win the prestigious MacArthur Fellowship; was awarded the 2015 Society of Illustrators Lifetime Achievement Award; and more.

His books have ranged from autobiography (The Wall) to fiction (Madlenka) to stunning visual biographies (Starry Messenger) to informational books (The Train of States) and strike a wide range of tones — from bright and delicious (Ice Cream Summer) to dreamlike and majestic (The Pilot and the Little Prince). He is a master picture book biographer, and his books are known for their exquisite details and luminous artwork. As a Booklist reviewer once wrote, “Sís’ works are less picture books than little miracles of design.”

Please note that, if you live near the museum, there is still time to see the Carle’s exhibit. See here. In fact, the Carle has sent along some photos of — and from — the exhibit, included below. I thank them. I’d also like to thank one of my grad students from a picture book course I taught this past summer — Lisa Ladd, a master of Information Sciences student at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, who lives in Vermont — for contributing some questions to this interview.

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Jules: In the Carle’s exhibition catalog for The Picture Book Odysseys of Peter Sís, Alexandra Kennedy writes that, in your books, you invite children to be your “co-conspirators in the unveiling of a story, layer by layer.” When you create books for children, do you have the child reader in mind? Sendak used to say he made the books he wanted to make and told the stories he wanted to tell — and they just happened to appeal to children. Which is the case for you? Or is it a little bit of both?

Peter: I think I was thinking about myself as a child when I got a chance to make my first picture book in a faraway country. I was, in my mind, a child explorer sending a message to my parents, my sister, and brother. Things shifted once we had children of our own. I was telling stories to them — about them — through my eyes. So, it is a little bit of both.




Pictured above: Photos of the exhibit at the Carle Museum
(Click each to enlarge)


Jules: When you create picture books, do you think of the images or the words first — or are they symbiotic?

Peter: Yes, symbiotic is the word. It is all one as an idea. It only becomes divided into sections and pages through the process.

And then there is a question from my wife or my editor: What is Peter trying to tell you?


Illustration from The Conference of the Birds (The Penguin Press).
Collection of the artist. © 2011 Peter Sís.
Used by permission of Penguin Press, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved.
(Click image to enlarge — and read more about the book and
see more art in this 2011 7-Imp post)


Jules: The exhibition catalog also notes that you create notebooks for each project. What typically goes into them? Are they primarily used for brainstorming?

Peter: I do create notebooks or dummies for each of my projects. If I am very sure about how I am making a book and what it is about, they are very brief. If I have to explain and explain (even to myself) the idea, there can be quite a few “dummies.” They often have much more charm than the finished project.




Sketchbook and dummy images from the Carle exhibit
(Click each to enlarge)


Jules: The image of Galileo facing the cardinals in your book Starry Messenger is very powerful. Did you receive criticism from the Church or Christian groups for this book?

Peter: The image of Galileo facing the cardinals is a very powerful one — perhaps the very first one of the book I was absolutely sure about. I did receive a number of very detailed letters about different religious teachings. My wonderful editor Frances Foster answered each one of them. Bless her soul.


Illustration from Starry Messenger: Galileo Galilei (Frances Foster Books).
Collection of the artist. © 1996 Peter Sís. Reprinted with permission from
Farrar, Straus, Giroux Books for Young Readers. All rights reserved.

(Click to enlarge)


Jules: Ellen Keiter (Chief Curator at the Carle) writes that many of your books for children are “complex and heavily researched books with layered levels of access: family trees, timelines, and casts of historical figures [that] coalesce to tell the stories.” Are these levels of access deliberate on your part, or do you think they are merely an inherent part of your style?

Peter: I think I do have the tendency of family tradition to work with different levels. Also, layers of “truth” were part of my growing up. But I also was fortunate to meet Frances Foster, who encouraged my tendencies to the fullest.



Pictured above: Two illustrations from Madlenka (Frances Foster Books).
Collection of the artist. © 2000 Peter Sís. Reprinted with permission from
Farrar, Straus, Giroux Books for Young Readers. All rights reserved.

(Click each to enlarge)


Jules: Your picture books seem to include puzzles or mazes. Has this been a lifelong interest?

Peter: Labyrinths, puzzles, and mazes were the best depictions of my confusion about the world — from a brainwashed child to an emigrant who could not return home (at least for some time).

Jules: How much does the gutter of the picture book influence your art as you are developing content?

Peter: The gutter influences the art in my books a great deal, since I almost always forget about it and then have to deal with the consequences.


Spread from Madlenka’s Dog (Frances Foster Books). Collection of the artist.
© 2002 Peter Sís. Reprinted with permission from Farrar, Straus, Giroux Books
for Young Readers. All rights reserved.

(Click to enlarge)


Jules: What was something you learned from Quentin Blake (when you studied with him at The Royal College of Art in England after graduation) that you still carry with you as an illustrator?

Peter: Quentin Blake is a very gentle and optimistic person and teacher. I remember that at the time we met at the Royal College of Art, just after [my] Prague art schools, he taught me that I could think for myself. He said: “Do not ask me what color should be the background of your picture. Deep down you know you are just asking, because you want to be sure.”


Illustration for An Ocean World (Greenwillow Books). Collection of the artist.
© 1992 Peter Sís. Used by permission of HarperCollins.

(Click to enlarge)


Jules: On that note, which artists or writers have influenced you the most?

Peter: I am sure I will leave someone out. Bosch. Saint-Exupéry. Steinberg. Andersen. Čapek (Karel). Trnka (Jiří). Busch (Wilhelm). And whoever drew Orphan Annie, Katzenjammer, Mutt and Jeff, Krazy Kat, and other treasures my grandfather collected in “the biggest book I have ever seen,” his collection of comics from the Chicago Sun-Times in the 1930s.

Also, Jan Amos Komensky, Orbis Pictus, Jules Verne, Daniel Defoe, Franz Kafka, Alexander Dumas, Charlie Chaplin. Shall I go on?


Illustration from The Wall: Growing Up Behind the Iron Curtain (Frances Foster Books).
Collection of the artist. © 2007 Peter Sís. Reprinted with permission from
Farrar, Straus, Giroux Books for Young Readers. All rights reserved.

(Click to enlarge)


Jules: Does music still play a big role in your life, as it did during the Prague Spring of 1968?

Peter: Yes. But it is the music from the time of the Prague Spring of 1968. Now I can download all of it.



Pictured above: Two spreads from The Three Golden Keys (Doubleday).
Collection of the artist. © 1994 Peter Sís.

(Click each to enlarge)


Jules: Do your children appreciate the books you wrote about your family history or about them — specifically, The Three Golden Keys and Tibet: Through the Red Box? Did your father assist with the latter?

Peter: Good question. They would politely say they do. But I think my father was a bit taken aback when Tibet came out — by its size and production. I feel strange now [that] my brother is making a documentary film about me. I have to ask my kids again.


Illustration from Tibet: Through the Red Box (Frances Foster Books).
Collection of the artist. © 1998 Peter Sís. Reprinted with permission from
Farrar, Straus, Giroux Books for Young Readers. All rights reserved.

(Click to enlarge)


Jules: As someone who has worked in animation (film was what brought you to America) and for whom animation has been such a pivotal part of your career: Who are animators working today whose work you enjoy and recommend?

Peter: Animation is an amazing art form, but the animation of today with all the new technology is a completely different process than animation in my day. So, even though I love to see it, I cannot see all of it (which, somehow it the old days, I sort of did). So, I still love my goldie oldies — Carolyn Leaf, Norman McClaren and the National Film Board of Canada, Jacques Drouin, Yuri Norstein. I wish I knew more about what is happening now, but it is an impossible volume of information to deal with.


Flying Man, tapestry design honoring Czech Republic President Václav Havel,
commissioned by Václav Havel Airport Prague, 2011.
Collection of the artist. © Peter Sís.

(Click to enlarge image)


Jules: In the exhibition catalog, Andrew Lass writes so eloquently about your work, your friendship, and the fact that you both grew up under an oppressive regime. He writes that “although the ugliest walls of Central Europe have since fallen and many others have been lovingly repaired (or at least whitewashed), creepy walls keep showing up in all corners of the Earth.” Your art, as Ellen Keiter writes, is often about transcending borders. What is it like for you, an immigrant to America, to make art in this country now, with an administration who advocates for walls, emphasizes borders, and demonizes immigrants?

Peter: It is a strange time for someone who was trying to escape through the walls to arrive to the time when the walls are suddenly built all over the world. It feels like Kafka’s “Dream” — I mean, nightmare.

Yet many children (here and in Europe) whom I speak to do not know anything about the Cold War or the Berlin Wall.




Pictured above: Three spreads from The Wall: Growing Up Behind the Iron Curtain
(Frances Foster Books). Collection of the artist. © 2007 Peter Sís.
Reprinted with permission from Farrar, Straus, Giroux
Books for Young Readers. All rights reserved.

(Click each to enlarge)


Jules: Do you work on several books simultaneously?

Peter: I always think about “other” books, but I should not. It would help.

Jules: What do you, as an artist, find most challenging and satisfying in the creative processes you employ?


Manhattan Whale, poster design commissioned by Arts for Transit,
Metropolitan Transportation Authority, New York City, 2001.
Collection of the artist. © Peter Sís.

(Click to enlarge)


Peter: When you solve an impossible moment in the creative process. And there is always a dark, impossible moment in every project. Sometimes in the beginning, in the middle of, and in the end. It feels good to solve it.

Jules: What do you wish someone would ask you about your career in children’s literature?

Peter: I have been doing children’s books so long that sometimes I think: Is there a little child somewhere in the dark night really liking my ideas of a book?


A peek at Sís’s next book, courtesy of the Carle Museum
(Click to enlarge)


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To see more art by Peter Sís, visit this 2017 7-Imp post (Robinson); this 2015 post (Ice Cream Summer); this 2014 post (The Pilot and the Little Prince: The Life of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry); this second 2014 post (What’s Your Favorite Animal?); and this 2011 post (The Conference of the Birds).

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Two opening photos reproduced by permission of Peter Sís.

All images from the Sís exhibit reproduced by permission of the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art. The exhibition is made possible with generous support from Macmillan Children’s Publishing Group.

2 comments to “Solving Impossible Moments with Peter Sís”

  1. As always, his work is stunning, but this book in particular really, really is gorgeous. Wow.

  2. I did not want this interview to end! Thank you both/all!

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