Sís, Peter 1949–
Czech-born American illustrator and author of picture books.
The following entry presents an overview of Sís's career through 2004. For further information on his life and works, see CLR, Volume 45.
One of only five children's book authors and the first picture book artist ever to have been awarded the prestigious MacArthur Fellowship, Sís has contributed a wealth of new and original conceptual designs to the contemporary picture book genre. Featuring Sís's trademark succinct phrasing, his works present intricate, fantastical illustrations with almost no white space, creating spellbinding universes of minute details. Characterized by vivid artistic flourishes, Sís's picture books offer a mythical autobiography of Sís's life—from a love letter to his native city of Prague in The Three Golden Keys (1994), to a mystical journey through Asia in Tibet: Through the Red Box (1998), to his adopted home of New York City in Madlenka (2000) and Madlenka's Dog (2002). Though many of Sís's illustrated texts are targeted towards beginning readers, he has also authored several nonfiction works, which blend evocative artwork with biographies of such significant historical figures as Christopher Columbus, Galileo Galilei, and Charles Darwin.
Born on May 11, 1949, in Brno in the Moravian region of the former Czechoslovakia, Sís came from a family of artists. His father, Vladimir, was a pioneering filmmaker who traveled the world directing documentaries. Sís mythologized one such trip in his picture book Tibet: Through the Red Box, in which he depicts his father as a white cutout figure amid otherwise typical family portraits of picnics, holidays, and birthdays. Despite the Soviet control of Czechoslovakia, Sís had a happy home life and demonstrated early artistic talent. He earned a M.A. from the Academy of Applied Arts in Prague in 1974, later attending the Royal College of Art in London, England, in 1977. By 1976, Sís had illustrated his first children's book, a two-volume set of fairy tales by the Brothers Grimm. He pursued a career in filmmaking, particularly animation, citing the works of famed Czech filmmaker Jiri Trnka as one of his major inspirations. Quickly earning critical acclaim, his short animated film Heads was awarded the prestigious Golden Bear Award at the 1980 Berlin International Film Festival. With his renown as an animator and illustrator on the rise in Europe, Sís earned the privilege of traveling outside his Communist-controlled homeland in 1982, journeying to the United States to produce a film for the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. When the Soviet bloc boycotted the 1984 Olympics, Sís's film project was quickly terminated. He chose to defect to the United States, and the U.S. government granted his request for asylum. Sís struggled to find work in the alien environment of Los Angeles until he was contacted by noted children's author Maurice Sendak. With Sendak's help, Sís was introduced to Ava Weiss, the art director at Greenwillow Books, who offered him the chance to illustrate George Shannon's forthcoming book, Bean Boy (1984). Sís eventually moved to New York, where his reputation as a children's illustrator was cemented after his collaboration with author Sid Fleischman, The Whipping Boy (1986), received the coveted Newbery Medal. Soon after, Sís penned his first picture book as both author and illustrator—Rainbow Rhino (1987), a parable about appreciating the value in what you have. In addition to his children's works, Sís has a diverse artistic portfolio, having contributed over one thousand illustrations to the New York Times Book Review. His work has also been featured in Time magazine and the Atlantic Monthly. He continues to live in New York City with his wife, Terry Lajtha, and their two children, Madeleine and Matej.
Commentators have perpetually singled out the cleverness and intricacies of Sís's illustrations, noting how his oil paintings frequently use colored, sweep-ing skies and expansive landscapes to create a definite mood or feeling. In his first original picture book, Rainbow Rhino, Sís creates a magical wilderness for a rhinoceros and his three rainbow bird friends. The quartet leads a happy, peaceful existence until the birds leave for more colorful—but also more dangerous—surroundings. Each bird moves to a locale of its own hue: blue bird to a blue lake; yellow bird to a yellow banana tree; red bird to a red poppy field. But each new place has a color-coordinated danger—hyena, snake, and crocodile—from which the rhino saves his feathered friends. Similarly, Sís's watercolor paintings in Waving: A Counting Book (1988) artfully reinforce the text's counting themes: A woman with ten suitcases counts ten joggers, building names and addresses continue the number motif, and Sís even hides Roman numerals within his illustrations throughout the book. In Beach Ball (1990), Mary's beach ball bounces along the shoreline, and Sís invites readers to explore new coastal landscapes on each two-page spread. On one layout, a flock of flying seagulls spells out the phrase "name the animals." Sís's ink drawings in his picture book fantasy Komodo! (1993) also include layers of captivating details for the observant reader. The story involves a child's clandestine trip to a jungle to view a real Komodo dragon after the dragon in a tourist-show never arrives. Sís employs stippled drawings and antique end papers to create an atmosphere of exploration and mystery.
Sís has also utilized the picture book format to create several unique biographies of historical figures. He used oil paints on a plaster-like background to create an old-world look for Follow the Dream: The Story of Christopher Columbus (1991). The book's illustrations abound with detailed imagery as well as a decorative use of sea motifs and nautical instruments. Walls are also prominently featured in the artwork to represent the barriers of fear and ignorance that Columbus had to confront. In the volume's introduction, Sís draws parallels between Columbus's journey to America and his own defection to the U.S. from Czechoslovakia. Sís revisited these themes in his later biographies, employing a variety of maps and scripted text in Starry Messenger: Galileo Galilei (1996) and unique fonts and foldout sections in The Tree of Life: A Book Depicting the Life of Charles Darwin, Naturalist, Geologist, and Thinker (2003). Continuing the autobiographical themes he expressed in Follow the Dream, Sís recounts memories of his childhood in Prague for his daughter Madeleine in The Three Golden Keys. The picture book tells the story of a man who is blown off-course in his hot-air balloon, eventually landing in his hometown of Prague. The man finds the door of his childhood home bolted by three padlocks and sets off to find the corresponding keys. He travels around some of Prague's most famous landmarks, locating the keys, and reconnecting with the land of his youth. Sís takes the autobiographical picture book into more surrealistic territory in Tibet: Through the Red Box, creating a narrative that moves between a young Sís at home in Prague and his documentarian father travelling throughout Tibet. Sís creates a mythic legend surrounding his father's time in Tibet, where the filmmaker was recording the construction of a highway. After a landslide isolates his father from his associates, he is nursed back to health by a community of Yetis. Over the course of the book, Sís's mystic tone continues as his father takes a sort of travelogue across the isolated nation, learning Tibetan legends and cultural traditions. In the story's conclusion, Sís's father meets with the Dalai Lama before ultimately returning home to his beloved family.
Sís has been recognized with an impressive array of awards, though his artwork continues to attract the bulk of his critical acclaim. Michael Cart has praised Sís's tribute to America's fifty states, The Train of States (2004), as having "rococo embellishments and glorious gallimaufry of visual facades, trivia, hoopla, and American hyperbole that command attention and invite endless, wondering re-examination." Reviewers have largely remained united in their appreciation of Sís's ability to convey his intent through graphic narrative in both his fictional picture books and nonfiction biographies. Though Sís is still primarily known as an illustrator, he has gradually won praise for his sparse and evocative prose. However, Sís has been criticized by some for oversimplifying his texts, with commentators citing his idealized depictions of Tibet, which ignore the country's status as an occupied state. New York Times critic A. O. Scott has also taken issue with Madlenka, noting that Sís's "whimsical, well-intentioned multiculturalism strikes a few troubling notes. Madlenka's friends embody their countries of origin in speech and costume, which is to say they're stereotypes." Despite such complaints, the majority of critical scholarship on Sís's canon is largely positive, stressing the author/illustrator's unique talent at creating intricate, unusual landscapes for young readers. Mary M. Erbach has commented that, "In his mysterious, often surreal art, Sís's rich imagination and artistic vision lead him to map the trade routes of explorers; put secrets beneath the surfaces of vast bodies of water; and permeate the walls of buildings with spirits. If readers look closely, they will see these details and more. Stories within stories. Details within details. Layers of meaning that may be found only by looking, and looking again."
In addition to his 2003 MacArthur Fellowship, Sís has received several honors throughout his career, including a Ten Best Illustrated Children's Books for the Year citation from the New York Times for Rainbow Rhino, Beach Ball, Follow the Dream: The Story of Christopher Columbus, Komodo!, and The Three Golden Keys. He won the Society of Illustrators' Gold Medal for Komodo! as well as the Society's Silver Medal for The Three Golden Keys. He was also awarded the Boston Globe/Horn Book Honor Award for Komodo! and A Small Tall Tale from the Far Far North (1994). Fire Truck (1998) and Tibet also both received Notable Books for Children citations from the American Library Association. In 2004 The Tree of Life: A Book Depicting the Life of Charles Darwin won the Ragazzi Award at the International Bologna Children's Book Fair.
Author and Illustrator
Rainbow Rhino (picture book) 1987
Waving: A Counting Book (picture book) 1988
Going Up!: A Color Counting Book (picture book) 1989
Beach Ball (picture book) 1990
Follow the Dream: The Story of Christopher Columbus (picture book) 1991
An Ocean World (picture book) 1992
Komodo! (picture book) 1993
A Small Tale from the Far Far North (picture book) 1993
The Three Golden Keys (picture book) 1994
Starry Messenger: Galileo Galilei (picture book) 1996
Fire Truck (picture book) 1998
Tibet: Through the Red Box (picture book) 1998
Ship Ahoy! (picture book) 1999
Trucks, Trucks, Trucks (picture book) 1999
Dinosaur! (picture book) 2000
Madlenka (picture book) 2000
Ballerina! (picture book) 2001
Madlenka's Dog (picture book) 2002
The Tree of Life: A Book Depicting the Life of Charles Darwin, Naturalist, Geologist, and Thinker (picture book) 2003
The Train of States (picture book) 2004
Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm, Volume 1 [written by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm] (picture book) 1976
Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm, Volume 2 [written by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm] (picture book) 1977
Bean Boy [written by George Shannon] (picture book) 1984
Stories to Solve: Folktales from around the World [written by George Shannon] (folktales) 1985
Higgledy-Piggledy: Verses and Pictures [written by Myra Cohn Livingston] (children's poetry) 1986
Oaf [written by Julia Cunningham] (juvenile novel) 1986
Three Yellow Dogs [written by Caron Lee Cohen] (picture book) 1986
The Whipping Boy [written by Sid Fleischman] (juvenile novel) 1986
After Good-Night [written by Monica Mayper] (picture book) 1987
City Night [written by Eve Rice] (picture book) 1987
Jed and the Space Bandits [written by Jean and Claudio Marzollo] (picture book) 1987
Alphabet Soup [written by Kate Banks] (picture book) 1988
The Scarebird [written by Sid Fleischman] (juvenile novel) 1988
Halloween: Stories and Poems [edited by Caroline Feller Bauer] (juvenile short stories) 1989
The Ghost in the Noonday Sun [written by Sid Fleischman] (juvenile novel) 1990
The Midnight Horse [written by Sid Fleischman] (juvenile novel) 1990
More Stories to Solve: Fifteen Folktales from around the World [written by George Shannon] (folktales) 1990
The Dragons are Singing Tonight [written by Jack Prelutsky] (children's poetry) 1993
Still More Stories to Solve: Fourteen Folktales from around the World [written by George Shannon] (folktales) 1994
Rumpelstiltskin [adapted by Christopher Noel] (picture book) 1995
The 13th Floor: A Ghost Story [written by Sid Fleischman] (juvenile novel) 1995
Monday's Troll [written by Jack Prelutsky] (children's poetry) 1996
Sleep Safe, Little Whale: A Lullaby [written by Miriam Schlein] (picture book) 1997
The Gargoyle on the Roof: Poems [written by Jack Prelutsky] (children's poetry) 1999
The Wind Singer [written by William Nicholson] (juvenile novel) 2000
The Little Wing Giver [written by Jacques Taravant] (picture book) 2001
Slaves of Mastery [written by William Nicholson] (juvenile novel) 2001
Firesong [written by William Nicholson] (picture book) 2002
Scranimals [written by Jack Prelutsky] (children's poetry) 2002
Animal Sense [written by Diane Ackerman] (children's poetry) 2003
The Wicked, Wicked Ladies in the Haunted House [written by Mary Chase] (juvenile novel) 2003
The Happy Troll [written by Max Bolliger] (picture book) 2005
Peter Sís (essay date September 2003)
SOURCE: Sís, Peter. "My Own Evolution." School Library Journal 49, no. 9 (September 2003): 56-8.
[In the following essay, Sís chronicles the details behind his methodical creation of The Tree of Life: A Book Depicting the Life of Charles Darwin, Naturalist, Geologist, and Thinker.]
I grew up without television, in Czechoslovakia, a country that was surrounded by the Iron Curtain. I read; I listened; and I drew. I loved the idea of exploration and discovery. My heroes included George Mallory and Andrew Irvine (two mountaineers who vanished mysteriously on Mount Everest), Vincent van Gogh, Marco Polo, Galileo Galilei, and Charles Darwin. I soon began to notice that independent thinkers with new ideas were, for the most part, received with a great deal of suspicion. At first I blamed this on the conformist character of the totalitarian state. Only later did I realize that this was the way it worked all over the world. As an author and artist, I want my work to celebrate innovative thinkers. And I want to show that the discovery process is not easy. Let's face it, very few individuals have changed the way we view our world. That's why visionaries like Columbus, Newton, and Einstein continue to inspire me.
Four years ago, when I began working on The Tree of Life (Farrar, 2003), my book about Darwin, I had the same limited understanding of him that most people have. I knew he had sailed on the H.M.S. Beagle to the Galápagos Islands, and that he was the first to show how the evolutionary process really worked. But little did I know what I was getting myself into. Researching and creating this book turned out to be the toughest project I've ever tackled.
I was comforted, at first, by the fact that I had successfully dealt with the life of Galileo in Starry Messenger (Farrar, 1996). Once a book is published, I tend to forget how difficult the process is. (Oh, Starry Messenger, that was easy!) Since Galileo lived in the 16th and 17th centuries, little is known about what he looked like, what he ate, or how he dressed. So I was free to portray his life as I imagined it. On the other hand, Darwin lived late into the 19th century, and a lot is known about him.
My project started smoothly, with the help of The Voyage of the Beagle, a wonderfully illustrated book that chronicles Darwin's five-year journey to South America, Australia, New Zealand, Tahiti, and eventually to the Galápagos in 1835. I began designing my book's layout. I created a gatefold scene that showed Darwin's awakening as a naturalist when he reached the Galápagos. So far so good. Then I started to collect data, materials, and more books, as did my editor, Frances Foster. I also began to notice helpful newspaper articles, at least one or two a week.
As I dug deeper into the research, I realized that my original concept was all wrong. Darwin didn't have a revelation when he reached the Galápagos. It came much later. I also realized that a 36-page picture book couldn't accommodate all of the characters and subplots that were part of Darwin's life—including his grandfather Erasmus (who had also written about evolution); Darwin's bumpy relationship with his father; the two letters that would forever change Darwin's destiny; his lifelong friendship with the Beagle's captain, Robert FitzRoy; Darwin's amazing encounter with the native Fuegians; his marriage to his cousin Emma; the sad fate of Darwin's favorite daughter, Annie; and the publication, in 1859, of On the Origins of Species, a work that rattled the foun-dations of science and religion. Many of these topics have been turned into plays and films or have become the subject of books, books, and more books. To further complicate things, I was juggling other assignments, traveling between New York and Paris (where I was working on an animated film), Paris and Madison, WI (I was an artist-in-residence at the University of Wisconsin), and back again to New York—with crates full of books and reference materials. (I'm still searching for some of them.)
I was also faced with a difficult artistic challenge. While the lives of Columbus, Galileo, and Arctic explorer Jan Welzl—men I had already written about—followed an arcing trajectory, most of the exciting events in Darwin's life occurred in his younger days. Darwin was just 22 years old when he embarked on a visually wonderful voyage aboard the Beagle. Then, after he returned to Victorian England, he ended up sitting in his study for the next 50 years or so, mostly thinking. How was I ever going to illustrate that?
While in Paris, in the summer of 2000, I scrapped my original gatefold scene—replacing it with a large drawing of Darwin entering the Brazilian rain forest for the first time. I was comparing his feeling of liberation to my own experience of leaving the grips of the Iron Curtain. Not a good idea. (The Tree of Life has a tiny version of that drawing on a spread that shows a cross section of the Beagle.)
Around that time, I thought it might be helpful to visit Down House, Darwin's home outside of London. I sat in his chair, touched his clothes, and looked at his secret notebooks. It gave me a spiritual boost to walk along the sandy path on which Darwin took his daily stroll. While visiting, I came across an English Heritage catalog about Down House, which also helped me a lot. It was well organized, well documented, and, best of all, simple. I returned to Paris and gathered more books and materials. Once again, I was getting lost.
Frances, my dedicated editor, flew to Paris in May 2001 to talk things over. I still felt overwhelmed by too much information and too many books after her departure, so I decided to work on another project altogether. And so emerged Madlenka's Dog (Farrar, 2002), a wonderfully liberating and playful book, especially after my struggles with Darwin.
Back in the U.S., I completely changed the structure of my book: the publication of On the Origin of Species and Darwin's theory of evolution now became the gatefold centerpiece. I had always worked closely with my father on my best books. He was my poetic sounding board. Both he and my wife, watching my frustration, advised me to forget about Darwin. But my editor was determined to bring the book to completion.
We moved into a new home outside of New York City in September 2001, and I finally settled down in earnest to finish the book. It took forever. There were pictures within pictures to create. And I toiled to tell the story in a way that avoided unnecessary subplots. Work, work, work. That fall, PBS aired a series called Evolution, which opened with a period piece about Darwin. The actors were British, and I assumed it was a well-researched BBC production. Darwin was depicted as left-handed—so that's the way I drew him. Luckily, near the completion of the book, Frances asked me to make sure that Darwin was a lefty. I searched the Internet, but I didn't find anything conclusive. My wife finally got in touch with the show's producer, who turned out to be from Seattle. He admitted that the actor who played Darwin was a southpaw, so they portrayed him that way, hoping nobody would notice. Back to the drawing board for me!
At this point, the text of the book was nearly finished, but new facts about evolution seemed to be popping up almost daily. It's quite possible that by the time The Tree of Life is published, in October, there will be many more new developments. Oh, how easy Galileo was compared to the complexity of Darwin. More than any book I have ever created, it was triple-checked for accuracy and to make sure there weren't any ambiguities in the text. Once again my editor, Frances, copyeditor Elaine Chubb, and the proofreaders at Farrar, Straus & Giroux saved the day.
True, I haven't left any open spaces in this book-white space where readers can just imagine. But this is not that kind of book. As with Galileo, my story of Darwin shows the power of independent thinking to change the direction of civilization. That's the idea behind the very last picture of the book. On the final endpaper, I've drawn a silhouette, representing the next independent thinker in our future.
Each new book I create is like a newborn baby—the wrinkled face, the features that have yet to fully take shape. That's how I look at The Tree of Life. When it's finally published, I'll either say, "What a nice baby" or "What a trying child indeed." When that time comes, I'm sure I'll have forgotten how difficult it was to deliver!
Don Latham (essay date September 2000)
SOURCE: Latham, Don. "Radical Visions: Five Picture Books by Peter Sís." Children's Literature in Education 31, no. 3 (September 2000): 179-93.
[In the following essay, Latham analyzes how Sís uses elements of graphic illustration in five of his picture books—labelled Sís's "visionary books" by Latham for their depictions of innovative thinkers—to enhance his text.]
The picture books of author/illustrator Peter Sís are sophisticated, detailed, and filled with symbols and allusions; as such, they encourage and reward careful observation. In addition, his pictures and texts interact with each other, and they invite the reader to interact with them. Born in Czechoslovakia and trained as a painter and filmmaker, Peter Sís moved to the United States in 1982. Since then, he has gained recognition for his remarkable picture books, with his 1996 book, Starry Messenger, and his 1998 book, Tibet: Through the Red Box, being named Claudette Honor Books. My discussion will focus on Sís' "visionary" books; that is, those books that deal explicitly with people who through extraordinary journeys developed extraordinary ways of seeing the world, both the world within and the world without. These books include Follow the Dream: The Story of Christopher Columbus (1991); A Small Tall Tale from the Far Far North (1993), the story of Czech folk hero Jan Welzl and his Arctic journeys; The Three Golden Keys (1994), the story of Sís's own journey back to his native Prague; Starry Messenger (1996), the story of Galileo Galilei; and Tibet: Through the Red Box (1998), the story of Sís's journey through his father's travel diary recounting his adventures in Tibet. In all of these books, Sís's artistic technique emphasizes the concept of vision as it relates not only to the visionaries depicted within the books, but also to readers/observers who are implicitly encouraged to develop their own ability to "read" the pictures and "see" the words.
In one sense, these five books are somewhat conservative in nature. They all portray male heroes with almost no women present at all. (One exception is Queen Isabella in Follow the Dream, but her role in the book is small.) Sís's version of the Columbus story is traditional in that Columbus is portrayed as a hero while no mention is made of the ultimately negative effects of his expedition on the native peoples of the Americas. The story of Galileo is likewise simplified, with the Church cast in the role of villain and Galileo in the role of hero. As reviewer Deborah Stevenson has pointed out, "[T]he text leaves inconsistencies unexplained (Galileo proudly affirms his correctness based on what he saw with his own eyes, but the Ptolemaic theory has essentially the same basis)…." (p. 115). The fact that Galileo backed down in the face of adversity is glossed over, as is the fact that the Church was acting from a variety of motives, not all of them selfish. Having the luxury of hindsight, we may be quick to condemn the Church for its narrow-mindedness, but at the time it was acting to preserve the fabric of society—as well as preserve its own power. Should the Church be held accountable for its shortsightedness while the Europeans who aggressively colonized the Americas are not? Sís would seem to suggest that this is acceptable.
Taken as a whole, his books present a more balanced view than I have implied thus far. If the destructive effects of the colonialists are overlooked in Follow the Dream, they are condemned in A Small Tall Tale where the intruders get their comeuppance in a particularly clever way. And, while the Church is portrayed as a villain (one might even say a willfully blind villain) in Starry Messenger, Sís should be applauded for his willingness to portray the Church at all within a children's picture book, and for his courage to portray it in a negative way. Furthermore, Sís should be praised for portraying other cultures in addition to Europeans, including the Inuit in A Small Tall Tale and Tibetans in Tibet: Through the Red Box.
But the most radical aspect of these five books is their graphics. I use the word "graphics" deliberately, rather than the word "illustrations," for in Sís's books both text and illustrations are presented in graphically sophisticated ways. Specifically, Sís employs paratextual elements, multiple formats, multiple layers of narrative, and a merging of texts and pictures to portray the experiences of his radical visionaries. The purpose of this article is to analyze how these elements function within the five books under discussion, and to suggest ways these books might be used with younger and older readers.
In each book, Sís uses paratexual elements, that is, elements outside of the text proper, to introduce his theme and to establish the dynamic relationship between all the elements within each book. Gérard Genette defines the paratext as "a title, a subtitle, intertitles; prefaces, postfaces, notices, forewords, and so on; marginal, infrapaginal, terminal notes; epigraphs, illustrations; blurbs, book covers, dust jackets, and many other kinds of secondary signals, whether allographic or autographic" (p. 3). Margaret Higonnet argues that in picture books, these "peripheral" elements constitute "a conspicuous part of the book," and as such deserve close critical attention (p. 47).1 The interrelation between the text and the paratext provides "a means of organizing literary experience and stimulating the active reader" (p. 49). For my purposes, I wish to define paratext in a slightly narrower way, specifically focusing on front matter and end matter. In Follow the Dream, for example, Sís includes a "Note to the Reader," in which he states his views of Columbus. Whereas many people of Columbus's day thought that Europe was surrounded by walls with monsters beyond the walls, "Columbus didn't let the walls hold him back. For him, the outside world was not to be feared but explored" (emphasis in original). Sís goes on to make a connection between Columbus's experience and his own: "Since I, too, grew up in a country surrounded by a 'wall,' known as the Iron Curtain, I was inspired to make this book…." But, even before reading this Note, the reader has already encountered Sís's primary motif, that of a stone wall, in the endpapers of the book. Lawrence R. Sipe has observed that endpages act somewhat like "stage curtains, framing the performance of a play."2 With Sís, a more appropriate metaphor might be that of the overture, which introduces the main motifs of a musical performance. In Follow the Dream, the endpapers show Europa, Africa, and Asia surrounded by a high stone wall, outside of which a monster stands in each corner. The image of the stone wall is repeated within the book, first on the opening page where a stone curtain (Sipe's point is apropos here) is open to show the city of Genoa, and then throughout the book, sometimes as a border for an illustration, sometimes as a background on which an illustration is placed. The motif is used, for example, in the pages of the Columbus album and on the walls of the room where a young Christopher sits at a loom dreaming of adventures on the sea. Stone walls suggest the imprisoning power of fear, ignorance, and complacency—obstacles that Columbus had to overcome, in his society if not in himself, in order to make his legendary voyage.
The paratextual elements of A Small Tall Tale function in a similar way. The endpapers depict icebergs floating in a vast blue sea. In the Prologue, Sís explains that the book is about the explorer and folk hero Jan Welzl: "When I was growing up, tales of his breathtaking Arctic journeys inspired me—and countless others—to dream of similar adventures." Welzl left the shaky political situation and economic hardships of Czechoslovakia in the 1890s, "eager to escape a world that seemed gray and hopeless." Again, the parallel to Sís's own life is striking. This book also contains an Epilogue in which Sís evaluates the fantastic aspects of Welzl's story. Nevertheless, Sís concludes, the core of the story is still very real, and Sís dubs it "the essential part of his adventures … a curiosity about life, courage, decency, and a love of the Arctic. That is what first fired my imagination and has lived in my memory." Given that much of the book is set in the Arctic, the image of icebergs reappears throughout. However, the icebergs may also be seen as representing isolation, the fantastic, and immovable strength—the same characteristics that apply to Jan Welzl and the Inuit people among whom he lived.
The paratext of The Three Golden Keys contains a letter addressed to Sís's daughter Madeleine. The letter is in script rather than text, lending it a sense of the familiar and personal. In the letter, Sís writes to the future Madeleine, the older Madeleine who will one day wonder about the city where her father grew up. This book, Sís explains, is intended to provide the keys to "unlock the mystery of Prague." And the cats, a recurring image in the book, are said to be "hobgoblins in cat's clothing." At the bottom of the page on which the letter appears is a small child—one assumes it is Madeleine—dressed as a cat. The endpapers of the book depict, not a cat as one might expect, but a worn, cracked brick pavement, presumably a pavement in Prague. Within the book, the narrator, Sís himself, will take a journey to Prague, and then within the city, he will journey to several places to discover the keys that will unlock the door of his family's old house. Sís will walk along these well-trod sidewalks and streets in search of the secrets of Prague. The cracked pavement suggests the long history of the city, as well as the journeys of those who have come before. At the end of the book, a sidebar explains that "[t]he key is a symbol of protection and insurance. The key guards. It gives one power to enter…." This explanation of the meaning of the key serves, ironically, to close the book. Yet it also serves as a final commentary on Sís's experience de-
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scribed within the book. The three Czech legends have proven to be the keys that Sís needed to unlock the mysteries of Prague and of his own heritage.
Starry Messenger contains no Letter to the Reader, no Prologue, and no Epilogue. However, its endpapers suggest both the theme of the book and the transformation from one era to another. The endpapers at the opening of the book show a Renaissance city at night, the silhouettes of buildings set against the dark blue of the night sky. In a lighted window of a tower, a man can be seen looking up at the stars through a telescope. One assumes this is Galileo. This picture is bordered by a number of different drawings, including images of armies with spears marching off to battle, the Greek Parthenon, a totem pole, the pyramids, and an igloo. These pictures suggest in miniature a history of various peoples of the world. The endpapers that close the book are similar yet different in one important respect. The buildings that are silhouetted against the night sky are those of a modern city with skyscrapers, radio towers, and a water tower. Again, a man is standing in a lighted room near the top of one of the tallest buildings. He is gazing at the stars through a telescope. The border around the picture contains drawings of modern inventions, such as a speeding train, a station wagon, a lighthouse, a hot air balloon, and a jet airplane. The Renaissance city in the first set of endpapers has been transformed into a modern city. Still there are gazers and dreamers. What discovery, one wonders, may be just on the horizon that will change our view of the world forever? The theme of seeking and trusting one's observations, as well as the theme of earth-shattering change, are central in Starry Messenger, and the endpapers serve to introduce these ideas at the opening and to reinforce them at the closing.
Like Starry Messenger, Tibet: Through the Red Box contains no Prologue, Preface, or Letter to the Reader. However, like all of the other books, it contains end-papers that introduce the important motifs of the book. The two sets of endpapers, which are the same, show the silhouettes of two faces looking at each other. The eyes in each face appear to be an aerial view of the city—two different cities—that seen from above have a maze-like quality. The gulf between the two faces is drawn to look like a river. Here in the endpapers, the important motifs of the book are sketched out in symbolic form: The faces represent Sís and his father, gazing at each other across the gulf of time. The two cities are Prague, the city of Sís's youth, and Beijing (or perhaps Lhasa?), where his father lived for a time. The maze and the river suggest journeys; the maze suggests complexity, while the river suggests strength, depth, and change. Each of these symbols is echoed in the book as Sís explores and imaginatively experiences his father's journey to Tibet.
In addition to using paratextual elements to introduce his themes, Sís employs multiple formats within the books proper to reinforce his themes, to incorporate multiple voices, and to encourage interactivity. The use of multiple formats reflects a commonly used technique in the literature of radical change, which Eliza Dresang identifies and describes in Radical Change: Books for Youth in a Digital Age (1999). According to Dresang, one type of radical change incorporates multiple formats, new levels of synergy between words and pictures, multiple layers of meaning, and interactivity (p. 19). The contents of these books are presented in a nonlinear and flexible way that is very much like the way children think and learn, and the way computers work (Dresang, pp. 59-60). In these books, as with much computer-mediated information, the reader/viewer is encouraged to experience and combine information in a variety of ways. Emphasis is placed on interacting with the material rather than passively receiving it. Roberta Seelinger Trites argues that multiple narratives (whether textual, visual, or a combination) have three potential effects. One, they encourage readers to construct their own meaning, or, to put it another way, they "engage the reader in the role of storyteller" (p. 227). Two, they are metafictional in that they tend to foreground the process of creating narratives, encouraging the reader to reflect on the process even as he/she makes meaning out of the text and visuals. Three, they subvert the traditional linear narrative method, and as such they "can communicate to children that they are capable of formulating both their own stories and their own ideology" (p. 238).3
The multiple formats that Sís uses include such diverse documents as maps, journals, logs, scrolls, albums, books, and letters. In Follow the Dream, he does not merely illustrate the story of Christopher Columbus as reported in the text. He reproduces various kinds of documents that serve to enhance the story and lend it a measure of authenticity by appearing to be originals. In an early opening, for instance, he includes pages from the Columbus family album, engaging in a bit of playful anachronism as he decks out the pages with what appear to be photographs of the Columbus family. Additional documents include a faux fifteenth-century map of the known world, bordered by medallions containing sketches of important events in Christopher Columbus's life; a detailed cross-section drawing of the Santa Maria showing the hull stocked for the voyage; and a portion of Columbus's ship's log (in script). The latter contains a miniature painting above each daily entry showing the three ships as tiny specks on the sea. What the paintings manage to convey that Columbus's entries in the log do not is that the ships were small objects in a vast sea, something of which Columbus and his crew must have been keenly aware. Furthermore, the ship's log conveys a sense of Columbus's own voice, even though the entries are short and purely descriptive. In Follow the Dream, these multiple formats add a pseudo-authenticity to the text itself, but also humanize the story that has now become a legend.
Unlike Follow the Dream, A Small Tall Tale is written from the viewpoint of the protagonist, Jan Welzl. Still, Sís employs multiple formats—including maps, Welzl's passport, and his diary—to tell the story of this folk hero and bold explorer. An early two-page spread contains entries from the diary written in script above 16 small drawings that illustrate each entry. These vignettes look almost like stills from a film, and viewed in sequence, they convey a sense of movement to the story of how Welzl took refuge and made a home in a large cave. At the very bottom of each page of this double spread appears the (very short) block text that is part of the main text of the book. The pictures and script text work together synergistically to expand on the ideas conveyed in the simple block text: "What luck! I have found a wonderful cave. With a bit of work it will make a good home." Later, a similar technique is used to illustrate the variety and usefulness of the activities Welzl learned among the Inuit, including making kayaks and tents, dancing, and hitching a dog team in fan formation.
A remarkable two-page spread depicts Welzl in the Inuits' underground dwelling, recuperating from overexposure to the cold. This warm and mystical dwelling resembles both a womb and the belly of a giant beast. Surrounding this dwelling is a drawing of a loosely coiled snake made up of many segments, each of which contains a drawing. Intertwined with the snake is a snake-like string of sentences that tell the story of how one living thing after another is eaten by a larger living thing. The moral: survival is difficult and all living things face danger everyday. Welzl's rescue by the Inuit, however, suggests something that the story omits: human beings workings together can help guard one another from dangers and together can survive. (Welzl later returns the favor by helping save the Inuit from greedy invaders.) While the block text at the bottom of each page is relatively simple, the numerous illustrations and the multiple layers of meaning convey a much richer, more complex narrative.
In The Three Golden Keys, Sís incorporates a map, detailed illustrations of magical transformations, and three scrolls containing traditional Czech legends, which prove to be the golden keys that can open the door on Sís's childhood home. The map of the city of Prague is presented as a two-page opening and appears just before the title page. Much like the broken pavement of the end pages, it functions as an introduction to the theme of the book—Sís's return to the city of his childhood. The image of the map is echoed in several illustrations within the book proper, which show various bird's-eye views of the city. Most of the illustrations within the book contain elements of magical realism. For example, the image of a cat's face appears in several early illustrations, including aerial views of the city and on the door to Sís on his homecoming journey through Prague. Several illustrations show Sís walking through the city, with his memories illustrated as ghostly drawings overlaid on the more realistic pictures of the streets of Prague. In other illustrations, magical transformations occur, usually just before Sís receives another scroll. In the library, for instance, a wall of books, depicted on the left side of a two-page opening, is transformed on the right side into a librarian composed entirely of books.
The librarian, along with two additional magically conjured characters, presents Sís with a scroll containing a traditional Czech legend. Each of these stories within the main story serves to reintroduce Sís to his Czech. The first story is of the mythical Prince Bruncvik, who fought the forces of evil; the second is the legend of the Golem, the artificial man who defended the Jews of Prague; and the third is of Hanus, the man who built Prague's astronomical clock. Sís presents each scroll in a two-page opening. The center of each contains a golden key surrounded by columns of text, written in script and divided into a preface and numbered parts. The numbered parts correspond to small pictures which surround the text like a border, unfolding the narrative in a clockwise fashion. There are several ways of interacting with these scrolls; one may view the pictures in order and then read the text, or vice versa; or one may read each numbered part of the text and then locate the corresponding picture, or vice versa. Regardless of the approach one chooses, it is clear that Sís is encouraging the reader to interact with and think carefully about both the text and the illustrations.
Starry Messenger incorporates several formats, among them maps, illustrations, and even portions of Galileo's book The Starry Messenger. The numerous maps are drawn to look like maps from the Renaissance, reflecting a mixture of accurate observation and superstition. (A sea monster, for example, appears just off the coast in a map of Italy.) Included are maps of the earth, the solar system, the moon, the sun, and the heavens. In another illustration, Sís presents a triptych, in which he depicts Galileo performing experiments for an enthralled audience. In the maps and in other illustrations, circular imagery predominates, suggesting both the earth (and other heavenly bodies) and the eye, for one of the themes of the book is the importance of not just looking, but also seeing. The rendering of the Copernican System, for instance, has the sun in the center with the earth revolving around it. The slightly elongated shape of the earth's orbit gives the whole picture the shape of an eye with the sun as the pupil. The message of the ocular imagery is clear: Galileo became a central figure on whom much attention, both positive and negative, was focused, but he also served as a conduit by which the world was able (eventually) to see the accuracy of the Copernican view of the universe.
As he does in the other books under discussion here, Sís reproduces a portion of a key text within the body of his book, in this case Galileo's The Starry Messenger. In a two-page opening, Sís depicts Galileo staring through his telescope at the moon. He is surrounded by an arch, on the walls of which are drawn various mythological figures including Atlas. This illustration serves as the central panel with smaller panels surrounding it. Above and below the central panel are illustrations of Galileo's book, open to show both drawings and text (in script). On each side are various drawings of the moon with more script text in between these panels. To the left is the title page from The Starry Messenger. Sís's text, which appears in block form in the lower left corner of the opening, simply reports that Galileo observed the moon, recorded his observations, and published them in a book. The illustrations, however, show the intricacy of Galileo's thoughts and observations, and bring Galileo's book, and his experience of writing it, to life. Within the compact space of this remarkable two-page opening, Sís manages to convey a sense of Galileo's contribution, the efficacy of the scientific method, and the significance of publishing for the dissemination of ideas.
Tibet: Through the Red Box contains several narrative threads and several different formats. Included are Sís's story of the discovery of his father's diary in a red box, his father's story as conveyed in the pages of the diary, and the Tibetan tales his father told him during his childhood. Sís's own story, set in the present, provides the pathway into the book and into both his childhood and his father's past. In an early opening, Sís describes on the left page how he unlocked his father's red box and discovered his diary inside. The right page is made up of 120 very small pages from his father's diary—a visual overview of the richness of the writing and pictures contained therein. Sís employs painstaking detail; no two pages are alike. Later, Sís includes sections from the diary reproduced as full pages. The result is to suggest simultaneously to the reader the breadth and depth of both Mr. Sís's experience in Tibet, and his written representation of that experience. All of these pages, both the miniatures and the full-page sections, are presented in script to convey the immediacy of the events being described and the authenticity of the document being reproduced. These pages also include drawings, supposedly done by Mr. Sís, to illustrate his adventures in Tibet. The graphic illustration of the diary also reinforces the artistic and literary connection between father and son.
The Tibetan stories are presented in block text on white pages with illustrations that look like Sís family photographs from the period. In each of the "photographs," a white silhouette of an adult male suggests the missing father, who is in Tibet experiencing the stories that are conveyed by the text. Illustrations on subsequent pages depict the father's experiences. The present time of the book takes place in the father's old study and is told mostly through illustrations with minimal text at the bottom of each page. However, there are also lines of text running vertically up the side of each page on the outside margins. These passages take as their subject the various colors of the room, which change as the daylight fades. Each color reminds Sís of some aspect of his childhood and his relationship with his father. The vivid and rich illustrations that accompany each of these sections echo the color described in the text and contain ghostly elements of the Tibetan stories that Sís remembers from his childhood.
All of these elements are interwoven throughout the book, and, although there is linearity within each thread, the overall effect is that of montage, a cinematic technique in which different images or shots are presented in rapid succession. This technique encourages the reader to make connections between the various sections and between images and text, as well as to interact with the book, especially in places where the book must be turned in order to decipher the vertical text. In many ways, Tibet is Sís's most complex and most accomplished book to date. It is a rich tapestry woven of Sís's own memories and his father's experiences as described in his diary. As such, it illustrates both the past and the relationship of the past to the present.
In addition to paratexual elements and multiple formats, another technique that Sís often uses is the merging text and pictures to achieve synergy. Lawrence R. Sipe defines synergy as the interrelationship between text and pictures "in which the total effect depends not only on the union of the text and illustrations but also on the perceived interactions or transactions between these two parts" (pp. 98-99). Dresang identifies synergy as a characteristic of many radical change picture books, but she defines it more narrowly than Sipe. According to Dresang, synergy is a situation where "words become pictures and pictures become words. In the most radical form of synergy, words and pictures are so much a part of one another that it is almost impossible to say which is which" (p. 88). The multiple formats that Sís includes in his books provide numerous examples of synergy. In the Columbus family album, for example, the handwritten captions are an integral part of the illustration. The same is true of Jan Welzl's diary—the text and the pictures are so closely connected, both literally on the page and figuratively in terms of meanings, that they cannot be separated. The three scrolls in The Three Golden Keys are graphical representations of closely related text and visuals. As previously noted, the numbered passages of text refer to specific pictures around the borders of the scrolls. Likewise, Starry Messenger contains a representation of Galileo's book, The Starry Messenger, with pictures to illustrate key passages, while Tibet includes sections of Sís's father's diary, both writings and drawings.
In other places, Sís achieves synergy by placing sentences in such a way as to form shapes, call attention to them, and encourage interaction on the reader's part. A Small Tall Tale contains an excellent example of this technique in the two-page opening already discussed. The sentences are arranged so that they slink along and around the coils of the snake, forcing the reader to turn the book in order to read the story that they tell. The segments of the snake serve to illustrate the various parts of the story. Here the words and pictures are literally intertwined to achieve a result that is greater than the sum of the parts. In Tibet Sís uses vertically placed sentences to bracket illustrations of his father's study. The sentence describe Sís's childhood memories of his father, and their placement on the page suggest a frame of remembrance through which Sís is able to return to his childhood.
Starry Messenger contains the most obvious examples of this technique. There are several instances where words, written in script, actually become pictures. Early in the book, two sentences form a spiral, suggesting the pupil and iris of an eye. The sentences state that Renaissance Italy was made up of city states which were united by the very powerful influence of the Church. The implication is that the Church was the center of this world and that it served to create a world view for everyone. Later, three quotations in which Galileo describes the importance of basing one's intellectual beliefs on his senses are used to form the ceiling and walls of Galileo's prison cell, thus illustrating both graphically and textually why Galileo was imprisoned. Similarly, three quotations in which Galileo describes the crucial role of observation in science are used to form the outline of an eye and an iris, with a silhouette of Galileo's head in the center. Like the earlier quotation about the power of the Church, this graphical/textual illustration suggests the centrality of Galileo's observations and theories in establishing a new world view. In all of these instances, Sís encourages the reader to make connections between the words and the images formed by the words, and he encourages, in fact almost requires, the reader to interact with the book by turning it in order to read the sentences. Perhaps he is suggesting that the reader, like Galileo, should be an active rather than a passive observer.
One might argue that Sís's picture books are overwrought rather than rich, that their complexity is a hindrance rather than an invitation to look and to read. One response to such an argument is that Sís deliberately uses intricate details and interconnections in his artwork to challenge traditional notions of how narratives should be constructed—both textually and pictorially—and to challenge traditional notions of how picture books should be read and viewed. He uses a multiplicity of images and techniques to encourage the reader/viewer to explore the richness of meaning through various formats and multilayered graphical-textual interactions. His books present myriad ways of experiencing narrative, even within the small space of a two-page opening. These many strands, when woven together through the reader's interaction with the book, form a stronger and richer narrative experience, one that, in its multiple paths and multiple access points, has affinities with hypertext and digital graphics. Thus, the artwork is not gratuitously complicated, but rather pushes the boundaries of our preconceptions about how a text can be experienced.
To be sure, the complexity of Sís's picture books raises the question of who is the intended audience. Typically, picture books are thought of as a genre for younger children. But the detail and sophistication of Sís's books suggest that they are really meant for older children, teenagers, and even adults. To be sure, younger children can appreciate the basic story of each of these books. Even Tibet contains "child-size" stories that can be enjoyed in and of themselves. Certainly, Sís's artistry offers much for a child to enjoy and explore. But these are not "easy" books in any sense of the word. Their verbal sophistication and visual detail make the books not well-suited for reading aloud to groups of children. These books are best experienced one-on-one, either alone or with an adult's guidance. As Perry Nodelman says, "[O]ur perception that a book is somewhat more subtle or more difficult than we believe a child's current understanding can accommodate should be grounds not for dismissing the book but for encouraging the child to experience it" (p. 83).4
Sís's books can be enjoyed by intermediate and young adult readers too. This age groups tends to be more visually literate than adults, having grown up with the visual stimulation of computers, television, and graphic novels. Still, many of them might overlook Sís's books, or dismiss them as being intended for younger readers. Adults—parents, teachers, and librarians—can therefore use these books to introduce intermediate and young adult readers to the pleasures of more complex picture books. These books also can offer something to a younger child and something more to the same child as he or she gets older, for these books are worth revisiting, worth looking at more closely, again and again.
In her review of Starry Messenger, Elizabeth Spires writes that the book "celebrates the power and freedom of thought, the pleasures of acute observation and the beauty of a dream held fast …" (p. 32). The same could be said of the other four books discussed in this article as well. Through their multilayered illustrations, multiple formats, and "graphical" texts, these books celebrate the power and pleasure of learning to see. David Macaulay, in his Claudette Acceptance Speech, said that "it is essential to see, not merely to look" (p. 419). Peter Sís clearly shares this philosophy and in his own picture books he demonstrates his respect for children's capacity not just to look, but to learn to see, and to change the world through their power to envision. As such, Sís himself proves to be one of the more accomplished visionaries writing and illustrating children's books today.
1. Margaret Higonnet, "The Playground of the Peritext."
2. Lawrence R. Sipe, "How Picture Books Work: A Semiotically Framed Theory of Text-Picture Relationships."
3. Roberta Seelinger Trites, "Manifold Narratives: Metafiction and Ideology in Picture Books."
4. Perry Nodelman, The Pleasures of Children's Literature, 2nd ed.
Dresang, Eliza T., Radical Change: Books for Youth in a Digital Age. New York: H. W. Wilson, 1999.
Genette, Gérard, Palimpsets. Trans. Channa Newman and Claude Doubinsky. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1997.
Higonnet, Margaret R., "The Playground of the Peritext," Children's Literature Association Quarterly, 1990, 15 (2), 47-49.
Macaulay, David, "Claudette Medal Acceptance," Horn Book Magazine, 1991, 67 (4), 410-421.
Nodelman, Perry. The Pleasures of Children's Literature. 2nd ed. White Plains, NY: Longman, 1996.
Sipe, Lawrence R., "How Picture Books Work: A Semiotically Framed Theory of Text-Picture Relationships," Children's Literature in Education, 1998, 29 (2), 97-108.
Sís, Peter, Follow the Dream: The Story of Christopher Columbus. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1991.
Sís, Peter, A Small Tall Tale from the Far Far North. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1993.
Sís, Peter, Starry Messenger: A Book Depicting the Life of a Famous Scientist, Mathematician, Astronomer, Philosopher, Physicist Galileo Galilei. New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1996.
Sís, Peter, The Three Golden Keys. New York: Bantam Doubleday Dell, 1994.
Sís, Peter, Tibet: Through the Red Box. New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1998.
Spires, Elizabeth, "Stars Were Always on His Mind," Review of Starry Messenger. New York Times Book Review, Nov. 10, 1996, 32.
Stevenson, Deborah, A review of Starry Messenger, Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, 1996, 50 (3), 115.
Trites, Roberta Seelinger, "Manifold Narratives: Metafiction and Ideology in Picture Books," Children's Literature in Education, 1994, 25 (4), 225-242.
FIRE TRUCK (1998)
Torrie Hodgson (review date September 1998)
SOURCE: Hodgson, Torrie. Review of Fire Truck, by Peter Sís. School Library Journal 44, no. 9 (September 1998): 182.
PreS—Sís blends simple text with bold pictures to give insight into one boy's vivid imagination [in Fire Truck ]. Matt's passion for fire engines permeates his whole life: "His first words in the morning were fire truck.' The last thing he said before he went to bed was 'fire truck.'" Not content just to play fireman, Matt wakes up and finds that he has actually become a fire truck. Only the insistent aroma of pancakes can bring him out of his enticing daydream. One simple sentence per picture allows for plenty of page turning without sacrificing the clear story line. A fold-out page of the fire truck accompanied by a numbered list of items to look for can be read as part of the narrative or returned to later as a find-and-count game. Matt's pajamas and cap are flamboyant red like his extensive collection of toy trucks, while other details of home are reduced to plain black outlines, showing how imaginary worlds can seem more real than everyday life. Small groups of toddlers will love tearing around the room making siren noises just like Matt. This short, active story (plus the undeniable allure of fire engines) is perfect for children who have just discovered the joys of pretending.
TIBET: THROUGH THE RED BOX (1998)
Karen Swenson (review date 8 February 1999)
SOURCE: Swenson, Karen. "A Lovely Careless Tale." New Leader 82, no. 2 (8 February 1999): 18-19.
[In the following review, Swenson describes Tibet: Through the Red Box as a "children's book for adults" due to its complicated subject matter.]
Czech-born illustrator, filmmaker and young people's author Peter Sís has now written a sort of children's book for adults. [Tibet: Through the Red Box ] is exquisitely illustrated, and its exploration of his relationship with his father through the elder Sís' diary of travel in Tibet is saturated in the mysterious, the mystical and the mythic. On another level, however, it is an exceedingly disturbing book that exemplifies our careless and exploitive attitudes toward Tibet.
During Sís' childhood in Czechoslovakia his father, also a filmmaker, was sent to China to teach the Chinese how to make documentaries. He was gone for much longer than expected. Each of the book's four episodes begins with pictures showing the young Sís, his mother and sometimes his sister: on a picnic, surrounding the Christmas tree, going for a walk, standing before a birthday cake. In every one they are accompanied by a white cut-out space in the shape of a man, the absent father, the ghost at the feast. It is an extremely effective way of showing the boy's terrible yearning for his missing parent.
While these drawings indicate Sís' state of mind, the narrative follows his father's adventures. After arriving in China, he is flown into the Himalayas to shoot the construction of a highway into Tibet. Conditions are rough and there are many technical problems. Just keeping his film warm is difficult. When part of a mountain collapses, he is cut off from the construction crew with his cameraman and two students. They try at first to reconnect with the road builders, then wander along, lost.
At this point the tale is overtaken by the mythic. In the book's first magical occurrence the father meets a boy with red bells sewn on his clothing who delivers a letter from the family in Czechoslovakia. Soon afterward he is separated from his companions in a snowstorm. Falling ill, he is rescued and nursed back to health in a community of Yetis, giants who live in a hidden mountain valley.
Following a serendipitous reunion, the father, cameraman and two students head for Lhasa, Tibet's capital. Along the way they witness a shooting contest using bows and special whistling arrows, and learn the best method of making Tibetan tea. The diary describes the many domed Buddhist monuments called Stupas that dot the countryside. Eventually the wanderers come to a monastery by a lake. There they are told a creation story. Tibet, say the monks, was once a large body of water. As it dried up it was covered with juniper forests and magic lakes. The lake next to the monastery is one of them and it contains fish with human faces.
Finally the filmmaker and his companions arrive at the Potala, the palace of the Dalai Lama in Lhasa. It is surrounded by Army tents. With the aid of various markings, the elder Sís gains entrance to the huge building. As he rushes through its rooms, he has another mystical experience.
Each of these episodes he painstakingly records in a diary, complete with maps and drawings. He keeps it in a red box along with butterfly wings, beads and other mementos. When he returns to Czechoslovakia, he apparently helps cure his son, who has become paralyzed during his absence, by telling the boy of his adventures.
Many years later the father calls his son, who is living in the United States, to tell him that the red box is now his. Sís returns to Prague and reads the diary in his father's study. As he reads, the walls change color to reflect the signature hues of his father's Tibetan adventures (red for the mail boy in bells, green for the valley of the giant Yetis, blue for the monastery at the lake) and of the rooms he ran through in the Potala. The diary thus enables the son to achieve some understanding not only of why his father was away but of a strange, fascinating period in the old man's life.
Sís' illustrations are complicated fantasies full of detail. Every chapter begins with a mandala whose sections depict the episodes in their corresponding colors. In the middle of each chapter there is a drawing of the study where the son is reading. It matches the appropriate diary episode and is haunted by fantastic figures—some linked to the tale of Tibet, others having to do with the son's life during his father's absence.
One of the most touching illustrations is the last in the book. It shows both men walking away hand in hand, their backs to us; their shadows, lying in dark silhouettes behind them, are their former selves—the boy and the young father. Tibet: Through the Red Box is a book rich in imagery and imagination. I have called it a children's book for adults, since children are unlikely to have the political knowledge about China and Czechoslovakia needed for full under-standing, and it is very intricate in its internal symbolism and color references.
But there is a problem. Peter Sís has given the name of a real place to an unreal one inside his father's head. The real Tibet is a country in the Himalayas where the Chinese have been practicing genocide since the 1950s. Right at this very moment, in any one of a number of prisons there, men and women are hanging by the wrists as their genitals are being shocked with electric cattle prods. The Potala is a real place, too, one that may well have been raped of its libraries and art objects, although visiting restrictions make this hard to verify.
Toward the end of the book we learn that the father wanted to warn the "Boy-God-King" (the Dalai Lama) of the threat to his country. Sís tells us, though, in one of his commentaries on the diary:
"But as he rushed through the palace (and I know this only from his hints), he realized that beneath the color and splendor of its rooms, and pictured in minute detail and in different aspects, angles and perspectives, his state of mind was somehow being reflected. It was all here, recorded on these walls, the past and the present."
The West has consistently chosen to view Tibet through a self-absorbed haze of fantasy. It wants the country to be Shangri-la, to be the mysterious inside of Western minds. Consequently, it has refused to concern itself with the realities of life there, and has played instead with the notion of Tibet the symbol, the magical, the mystical. The death of the country, its culture and so many of its people is in large part also a result of the West's inability to give up these myths and respond to the true horror Tibetans live with.
SHIP AHOY! (1999)
Lauren Peterson (review date 1 September 1999)
SOURCE: Peterson, Lauren. Review of Ship Ahoy!, by Peter Sís. Booklist 96, no. 1 (1 September 1999): 143.
Ages 3-5. The special illustrative style that captured the attention of preschoolers in Trucks, Trucks, Trucks is evident in [Ship Ahoy!, ] this wordless picture book about a boy's imaginary voyages on different types of boats. Sís' thoughtful design beautifully conveys the inner workings of the child's vivid imagination in doublepage spreads, with each sequence showing the boy's real world on one page and the imaginary one opposite, in almost mirror image. Thickly outlined, sparsely detailed shapes set against a largely stark white backdrop (there's a blue rug at the boy's feet) distinguish the real world; in the imaginary one, the palette is pale blue, and the boy's rug is transformed into a waterway and his couch into a boat—a raft, a canoe, a sailboat, even a pirate ship. The climax comes in a foldout near the conclusion, which depicts the boy encountering a giant green sea serpent with a curious resemblance to the vacuum cleaner Mother has just brought into the real-world scene. Although the primary audience here will be preschoolers, this can also provide inspiring images for older kids to use as a basis for creative writing.
TRUCKS, TRUCKS, TRUCKS (1999)
Marilyn Bousquin (review date May-June 1999)
SOURCE: Bousquin, Marilyn. Review of Trucks, Trucks, Trucks, by Peter Sís. Horn Book Magazine 75, no. 3 (May-June 1999): 322-23.
Matt, the pint-sized hero from Sís's Fire Truck, has traded in his fire-red engines for a whole fleet of construction vehicles that litter his room in the opening spread [of Trucks, Trucks, Trucks ]. The vertically aligned, sideways text asks, "Matt, will you pick up your trucks?" In the style of Fire Truck, with loose black lines on expanses of white poster-board paper, the bright yellow trucks take front-and-center in an otherwise black-and-white environment. Matt's shoes and hair, in the same construction-truck yellow, align him with the vehicles and thus emphasize the obvious: here is a serious truck man. Matt does "pick up" his trucks: he goes digging with the digger, plowing with the plow, and pushing with the bulldozer. Before we know it, he is waving from behind the wheel of the steamroller and shifting gears in the cab of the backhoe. Sís pulls off this sleight-of-hand with a subtle yet effective artistic maneuver: Matt gets smaller from spread to spread as the trucks get progressively larger. A pull-out spread of a skyscraper-tall crane lifting a sock from the floor confirms that Matt is operating his trucks to get the job done. In the end, Sís nudges us gently back to reality—a now-tidy room where Matt carries the once-again toy-sized crane to its rightful place among the other parked trucks. But wait—there's that sock, still dangling from the crane's jaws. Whose reality is this, anyway? Children will unabashedly claim it as their own.
A. O. Scott (review date 19 November 2000)
SOURCE: Scott, A. O. "In the Universe, on a Planet, on a Block." New York Times Book Review (19 November 2000): 67.
[In the following review, Scott praises Sís's incandescent illustrations in Madlenka, but contends that the picture book descends into worrisome stereotypes.]
The heroine of Peter Sís' new picture book [Madlenka ] is a little girl who circumnavigates her lower-Manhattan block—the neighborhood seems to be the one east of SoHo and north of Chinatown that real estate agents have lately taken to calling NoLiTa—in big yellow rain boots and a bright purple dress. It's clear from the book's dedication that Madlenka is Sís' own daughter, but it can hardly be a coincidence that her namesake is perhaps the most famous little girl in modern children's literature, who lived, you may recall, in an old house in Paris that was covered with vines.
This Madeleine—who goes by the Czech diminutive version of her name—lives in a walk-up apartment whose precise location is pinpointed on the endpapers and the frontispiece and specified at the beginning of the story: "In the universe, on a planet, on a continent, in a country, in a city, on a block, in a house, in a window, in the rain."
The words wrap around Madlenka's block, which is drawn floating in space in tricky, Escher-style perspective, so you're either looking down on it from the sky or gazing up from the sidewalk. Peter Sís is a more rigorous draftsman than Ludwig Bemelmans was—his pictures are meticulously cross-hatched and full of carefully scaled architectural detail—and a less daring storyteller, but Madlenka, with its visual whimsy and its clever mixture of naïveté and sophistication, delighted the Madeline lovers in my house.
For Madlenka, who has just discovered that she has a loose tooth, the block is a world unto itself, a familiar, self-contained place and also a realm of infinite newness and variety, always reassuringly the same and yet constantly changing its shape, color and texture. Her adventure is perfectly ordinary and completely magical, like the wonderful, scary experience of losing a tooth.
Like Sal in Robert McCloskey's One Morning in Maine, Madlenka needs to tell everyone the news, and so she skips around the neighborhood, stopping at the bakery, the greengrocer, the newsstand and other local businesses. Each of the proprietors comes from a different far-off land, and they offer Madlenka and her readers colorful excursions to exotic points around the globe.
The book's design is ingenious, a kind of two-dimensional hypertext of maps and windows that allows you to flip from the cartography of real places to a geography of pure imagination.
Madlenka's first visit is to Mr. Gaston, the baker. The little girl stands, umbrella in hand, in the middle of the left-hand page, surrounded by a schematic map of the block with icons of Frenchness—a rooster, the Eiffel Tower and various baked goods (including, naturally, a madeleine)—arrayed around the border. On the facing page, the kindly patissier stands in his doorway. His shop window is full of sweets, and a window onto the next page reveals the Eiffel Tower at night; turn it, and you see Madlenka in a Paris dream world of floating monuments and Napoleons (both the cake and the emperor).
Variations of this trick are repeated as Madlenka visits the Indian news agent Mr. Singh, the Italian ice-cream vendor Mr. Ciao, a German neighbor named Mrs. Grimm and Eduardo, the Latin American greengrocer and florist. The palette and the iconography change to suit each place. India is flying elephants in deep pastel; Italy is a bright land of pizza, pasta, vol-
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canoes and canals; Germany a dark green forest populated by fairy-tale monsters; and Latin America a fantastical eagle and jaguar in a pyramid-strewn landscape.
Mrs. Kham, who owns a store full of "magical things from Asia," comes from a crimson and gold place of long scaly dragons and delicately brushed ideograms. And Madlenka and her friend Cleopatra travel to an imaginary African savanna.
Each of these tableaus is dense with visual information, and though "Madlenka" doesn't have much narrative incident, it's still a book to be read slowly and repeatedly. It will be appreciated both by toddlers, who can exercise their burgeoning vocabularies ("fish!" "flower!" "ice cream!"), and by older children with an expanding sense of the world's variety.
Peter Sís has a ravishing pictorial style—he is a prominent illustrator, as well as the author of, among others, a wonderful book about Galileo for intermediate readers and two fine books about trucks for their younger siblings—but his whimsical, well-intentioned multiculturalism strikes a few troubling notes. Madlenka's friends embody their countries of origin in speech and costume, which is to say that they're stereotypes.
This, by itself, is inoffensive (though it does seem unfortunate that Cleopatra, a young black girl, greets her playmate with the phrase "cool baby"). But Sís' sense of cultural geography is peculiar. France, Italy, Germany and India are of course more complicated and diverse places than his pictures of them suggest, but they are nonetheless discrete nations, which Asia and Latin America are not. Eduardo wears a bowler hat, which suggests the Andes, but the jaguars and pyramids associate him with Central America. He speaks Spanish, which is not the language of the largest and most populous country in Latin America. If you asked him—as a curious and friendly child like Madlenka surely would—where would he say he was from? (Would Mr. Gaston say he was from Europe?) And what about Mrs. Kham? Is she Vietnamese? Korean? Chinese? These distinctions matter—surely they would matter to her—and a children's book that takes its readers on a trip "around the world" would do better to acknowledge.
Deborah Stevenson (review date May 2001)
SOURCE: Stevenson, Deborah. Review of Ballerina!, by Peter Sís. Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books 54, no. 9 (May 2001): 353-54.
The balletomane protagonist [of Ballerina! ], Terry, is a ballerina—at least in her dreams. Dance dress-up turns her into a multitude of stars: her pink tutu puts her in The Nutcracker, her white feather boa places her in Swan Lake, her violet cape invites her into Cinderella. Finally she puts on a rainbow of colored scarves and becomes the best ballerina of all, much to the approbation of her adoring familial audience. This doesn't have the effective contrast between solid realism and panoramic dreams that Sís' similarly styled books about Matt have had (such as Fire Truck ); the narrative here is less imaginative, presenting essentially a pleasing list. The spreads are attractive, with a thickly drawn child Terry on one side and an ethereal ballerina Terry in a detailed scene opposite, but the foldout doesn't earn its keep, being merely a long illustration that could have been compressed into a single spread. The fantasy touches and the ballet showcase (since not all are named in the text, there's an additional name-the-ballet game) are alluring, however, and this may be just the thing to keep wannabe Giselles on their toes.
MADLENKA'S DOG (2002)
Roger Sutton (review date March-April 2002)
SOURCE: Sutton, Roger. Review of Madlenka's Dog, by Peter Sís. Horn Book Magazine 78, no. 2 (March-April 2002): 205-06.
When we first met Madlenka, she was getting acquainted with the neighbors in her own little corner of the universe; in this second outing she is taking her dog for a walk. Said dog has a very real red leash but is otherwise invisible, yet Madlenka's neighbors are undeterred in knowing exactly what it looks like, which in each case is a dog well loved and well remembered, and revealed by Sís through a restrained series of clever and sturdy flaps. Mr. Gaston, the baker, remembers his poodle (lift his tray of croissants to see the young Gaston at play with the dog); Mr. Eduardo's delivery basket hides a picture of what looks like a Newfoundland from his childhood in the Andes. In one sly picture, an elderly lady's birdcage swings open to show a snowscape-with-dachshund. The grownups have their memories, but Madlenka has her vigorous imagination, which is exercised to impressive effect in the games she plays with best friend Cleopatra—who has an imaginary horse. The girls' games take them and their pets across eons and miles in a series of three tapestry-like, wordless double-page spreads depicting a medieval fantasy kingdom, ancient Egypt, and the far, far north, with die-cuts through the pages suggesting continuity of the imagination. Inspiring memories in the old and imagination in the young, the dog is a noble beast indeed, and Madlenka's Dog 's resonant intergenerational connections make it an inspired choice for sharing. Do.
THE TREE OF LIFE: A BOOK DEPICTING THE LIFE OF CHARLES DARWIN, NATURALIST, GEOLOGIST, AND THINKER (2003)
Janet Luch (review date February 2004)
SOURCE: Luch, Janet. Review of The Tree of Life: A Book Depicting the Life of Charles Darwin, Naturalist, Geologist, and Thinker, by Peter Sís. Library Media Connection 22, no. 5 (February 2004): 61.
A person could spend hours looking at all of the things presented in this book [Tree of Life: A Book Depicting the Life of Charles Darwin ]. There are maps, timelines, drawings, and texts of varying fonts and formatting on every page. This multitude of information is presented in a very easily understood manner. The book informs readers of Darwin's boyhood experiences, his education, and his relationship with his father. Excerpts of primary documents such as Darwin's letters and books are included. In many cases, whole pages of his work from his Beagle voyages have been reproduced for readers to see. There is a list of his father's objections to Charles going on the Beagle. There is a drawing of the Beagle and the many places they visited and the things they saw, including Darwin's impression of them and a map of where the ship traveled. The book continues with Darwin's life when he went home, including his usual daily schedule, and how his thoughts developed about evolution. There is a double-page foldout section telling a little of what he said in The Origin of Species. This easily read and understood book is an excellent source of information for someone who wants to know a little of the background of Charles Darwin and his work. Recommended.
THE TRAIN OF STATES (2004)
Diane Roback, Jennifer M. Brown, and Joy Bean (review date 13 September 2004)
SOURCE: Roback, Diane, Jennifer M. Brown, and Joy Bean. Review of The Train of States, by Peter Sís. Publishers Weekly 251, no. 37 (13 September 2004): 79.
Uncle Sam conducts the patriotic engine of this line of 50 railroad cars (one per state), and Washington, D.C., brings up the rear as caboose [in The Train of States ]. Czechoslovakian-born Sís combines his love for his adopted country (his home for more than two decades) with his admiration for antique circus wagons (from an introductory note). The cars appear chronologically, according to their date of statehood. Readers will pore over the unique design of each, which incorporates the state's flag, motto, nickname and the genesis of its name, as well as labeled images of the state tree, flower and bird. Underneath the cars, Sís lists the state capital, then repeats the state tree, flower and bird, adding a piece of trivia (e.g., "In Barrow, Alaska's northernmost point, the sun doesn't set for 84 days during the summer months"). Given the prescribed space allotted to each state, the duplication of some of these facts comes at the expense of additional information. But the wagons teem with interesting details (explained in an endnote); they include miniature portraits of presidents or other celebrities who hail from the state (Ben Franklin tops the Pennsylvania circus wagon), milestones (Ohio had the first professional baseball team; women could first vote in Wyoming) and relevant symbols (Mount Rushmore for South Dakota). Sís's signature fine black line limns entire vignettes while his watercolor wash adds depth and perspective. He gives both youngsters hungry for state facts and those casting about for unusual historical morsels ample reason to climb aboard this festive train. Ages 6-up.
Additional coverage of Sís's life and career is contained in the following sources published by Thomson Gale: Children's Literature Review, Vol. 45; Contemporary Authors, Vol. 128; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 98, 132; Literature Resource Center; Major Authors and Illustrators for Children and Young Adults Supplement, Eds. 1, 2; and Something about the Author, Vols. 67, 106, 149.
Dresang, Eliza T. "Radical Changes in Books." In Radical Change: Books for Youth in a Digital Age, pp. 17-20. New York, N.Y.: H. W. Wilson Company, 1999.
Argues that Starry Messenger represents a work of "radical change," a reexamination of the traditional formats of picture book construction.
Isaacs, Kathleen T. "Getting to Know Galileo." Book Links 11, no. 4 (February-March 2002): 30-2.
Review of Starry Messenger with a detailed analysis of how it can be used as a teaching vehicle.
Long, Joanne Rudge. "Eloquent Visions: Perspectives in Picture Book Biography." School Library Journal 43, no. 4 (April 1997): 48-9.
Comparison of Sís's Starry Messenger with the similarly-themed Leonardo da Vinci by Diane Stanley.
Sís, Peter. "Falling Out of the Tree of Life." Teaching PreK-8 34, no. 8 (May 2004): 58-9.
Sís explains his decision-making process behind the creative elements that influenced The Tree of Life.
Sís, Peter, and Mary M. Erbach. "Peter Sís on The Tree of Life." Book Links 13, no. 2 (November 2003): 48-51.
Sís discusses his motivations behind the creation of The Tree of Life.