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Peter Sís (1949-) - Sidelights

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Peter Sís is a distinguished illustrator and writer recognized internationally for his contributions to children's literature. Since the mid-1970s, he has made more than half a dozen short films, illustrated many books for other authors, and written several of his own self-illustrated children's books. Stephen Fraser, writing in Five Owls, noted that Sís "remains one of the truly distinctive picture-book creators today—quirky, sophisticated, and imaginative."

Born into an artistic family in 1949, Sís grew up in Czechoslovakia at a time when the former Soviet Union ruled his homeland. Because both of his parents were artists (his father was a filmmaker and explorer and his mother, an artist), Sís was surrounded by art as a child. As early as age four or five, Sís began drawing pictures, and within a few years, he became quite serious about his craft. "I was already illustrating regularly by the time I was eight or nine," Sís once told SATA. "My father and my mother would give me certain assignments, and I remember I would even have deadlines." Sís credits his parents with providing an appropriate environment to foster his growth as an artist. His talents flourished in an atmosphere that balanced creative freedom with a certain amount of structure and discipline. Above all, he was challenged intellectually as a youth by his parents.

When he had reached his early teens, Sís was convinced that he wanted to pursue a career as a professional artist. Once in formal art school, however, Sís began to experience some frustration in his quest. His family's interest in contemporary art clashed with the traditional ideals of formal artistic training. In spite of these difficulties, Sís earned his master's degree from the Academy of Applied Arts in Prague in 1974 and later attended the Royal College of Art in London, England. He credits his so-called "soft technique," which is still evident in his works, to his traditional art education.

Sís first became involved with animated films in the 1960s, and he considers famous Czechoslovakian illustrator, animator, and teacher Jiri Trnka to have been an important role model. By the early 1980s, Sís was already a popular artist and filmmaker in Europe. "Film for me was the passport to the whole world," he once told SATA. His short animated film Heads earned the Golden Bear at the 1980 Berlin International Film Festival. He was then invited to design and paint illustrations for a Swiss television series called Hexe Lakritze ("Little Witch Licorice"). Sís also worked on another film in London. Then, in 1982, he traveled to Los Angeles—the site of the 1984 Olympic Games—to do a film that tied in the theme of the liberation of humanity with the Olympics. However, following the Soviet Union's decision to boycott the 1984 Olympics, other eastern and central European countries, including Czechoslovakia, also withdrew from the competition. The Olympic film project was canceled, but Sís remained in Los Angeles to pursue his career in art.

At first, Sís found life on the West Coast quite challenging. As he once explained to SATA, "It was very hard to find my way around in Los Angeles because all of a sudden things were completely different than what I was used to in Europe—the palm trees and lifestyle and everything. I felt completely misplaced and strange." Although Sís had difficulty obtaining film and illustration jobs, he did find work teaching classes in illustration in Los Angeles. In addition, he illustrated two of Aesop's fables for television.

At about the same time, Sís took the advice of a friend who suggested that he send a sample of his work to famous American children's writer and illustrator Maurice Sendak. Sís never expected to get a response, but Sendak was impressed enough with the young artist's work to call him personally and discuss his career aspirations. Several months later, Sendak called again while attending the 1984 American Library Association convention, which was held in Los Angeles. He invited Sís to join him at the convention and introduced him to Ava Weiss, art director of Greenwillow Books, a New York City-based publisher. Sís broke into the American book illustration market on the spot, agreeing to illustrate George Shannon's Bean Boy.

Following Bean Boy and a move to New York City, Sís illustrated two more books for Greenwillow, Sid Fleischman's juvenile novel The Whipping Boy, which won the Newbery Medal in 1985, and Stories to Solve: Folktales from around the World, by Shannon. Not long afterwards, Sís became a regular contributor of illustrations to the New York Times Book Review and began to write and illustrate his own work. His first self-illustrated work, Rainbow Rhino, was listed among the New York Times top ten best illustrated children's books of 1987.

By 1991, Sís was well-known in the children's book industry. He had already illustrated almost two dozen works by other authors and created six of his own, including the well-received Follow the Dream: The Story of Christopher Columbus. School Library Journal contributor Jean H. Zimmerman deemed Follow the Dream a "fascinating artistic representation of the discovery of the New World." Excitement surrounding this work stemmed partly from the 500-year anniversary of Columbus's discovery of America and partly from Sís's experimentation with both color and composition. Using oil colors on special plaster-like backgrounds, the artist achieved a textured, authentic old-world look of fifteenth-century paintings. Sís was inspired in part by his continuing fascination with his father's exploration and travels and his own journey from a Soviet-dominated country to the new world. He once explained to SATA, "I realized coincidental things with my own life or with somebody who wants to break free from certain situations. With determination and perSístence, a person can do it."

Over the next few years, Sís's works, such as Komodo!, the 1993 story of boy who travels to Indonesia to visit a famous dragon, and A Small Tall Tale from the Far Far North, a story based on the Czech legend of traveler Jan Welzl, also met with success. He then added to his repertoire The Three Golden Keys, published in 1994. In this fairy tale, a young man is led by a cat through the city of Prague to find his childhood home, and eventually, the three keys that help him enter it. Writing and illustrating The Three Golden Keys proved to be quite intriguing for Sís, and critics and readers applauded the book. While School Library Journal contributor Julie Cummins felt the work was suited more for older children and adults, she decided that overall, "the book is intriguing, with visual and textual subtleties interconnecting with cultural and historical ties." Mary M. Burns, commenting in Horn Book, also categorized the book as one for an older audience, but praised the book for its "dazzling design, opulent production, [and] meticulous execution," not to mention its "elegantly crafted, breathtaking fine line illustrations."

Turning his attention to biography once again, Sís wrote and illustrated Starry Messenger: Galileo Galilei, which the American Library Association named a Caldecott Honor Book in 1997. Like Christopher Columbus in Follow the Dream, Galileo set out to prove that the Earth was not what people thought it was—in this case the center of the universe. Unlike Columbus, however, the famous astronomer could only prove it with his theories. In this picture book, Sís conveys the finer and darker periods of Galileo's life, with simple descriptions in large type for younger readers and more detailed notes in smaller type for older ones. Reviewing this work in the New York Times Book Review, Elizabeth Spires commended Sís on how he "manages to tell the relatively complicated story of Galileo in such a simple, straightforward way, accompanied by some of the most gorgeous illustrations imaginable." Wendy Lukehart, writing in School Library Journal, added that the "pathos, the painstaking copies of Galileo's famous sketches of the heavens, and the attention to current scholarship make this book a fascinating find."

Sís wrote about the adventures of another explorer—this time his father—in the 1998 work Tibet: Through the Red Box. In the 1950s, the Chinese government recruited Vladimir Sís to record on film the construction of the first highway leading from China into Tibet. While fulfilling his duties, Vladimir witnessed the horrors of China's invasion of Tibet, which ultimately led to the removal of the Dalai Lama. It was during this two-year period away from home that Vladimir kept a diary. When he returned home, the elder Sís kept the diary locked in a red box, passing on stories about his journey orally to his son. In 1994, Vladimir wrote a note to his son saying the diary was his. Sís, in turn, decided to share his father's diary and oral tales with the world by creating a "groundbreaking, creative" picture book, as described by School Library Journal contributor Shirley Wilton. Similarly, a Publishers Weekly reviewer wrote that the "luminous colors of the artwork, the panoramas of Tibetan topography and the meticulous intermingling of captivating details . . . make this an extraordinary volume." Caldecott Medal committee members also thought the book was extraordinary, awarding the work a Caldecott Honor in 1999.

Also published in 1998 was Sís's picture book for preschoolers, Fire Truck. In this short story, a young boy wakes up to find that he has become a fire truck. He revels in his newly formed body until the smell of pancakes brings him back to reality. "Sís blends simple text with bold pictures to give insight into one boy's vivid imagination," wrote Torrie Hodgson in School Library Journal. Two more works that feature things of interest to many children are Sís's Ship Ahoy! and Trucks, Trucks, Trucks, both of which also use imaginative constructs. In Ship Ahoy!, a little boy envisions the blue carpet beneath him as a sea and imagines himself in various vessels. Only a sea monster—in the form of his mother's vacuum cleaner entering his room—jolts him back. Dinosaur! continues in this same vein, featuring a boy in the bathtub with his toy dinosaur, who suddenly begins to multiply. The tub becomes a primeval pond, and the growing number of dinosaurs then become land creatures. All told, thirteen different prehistoric creatures are depicted, with a glossary at the close. "This imaginative story with wonderful end-papers naming the creatures should appeal to all young dinosaur lovers," remarked JoAnn Jonas in School Library Journal. In Ballerina!, little Terry looks into the mirror and imagines herself in some of classical dance's greatest roles. Her costume changes—a towel added, or a scarf—become full-fledged ensembles on the alternate page, where the various aspects of dance—a twirl, the leap—are illustrated for readers. "Sís once again creates a beautifully realized, spot-on view of creative kids at play," commented Booklist's Gillian Engberg.

One's of his more notable collaborations has been with children's poet Jack Prelutsky, a pairing which began in 1993 with The Dragons Are Singing Tonight. Its followup, The Gargoyle on the Roof, contains poems about werewolves, vampires, trolls, gremlins, and other horrific creatures, but with a lighthearted tone—how does a vampire shave, for example, when he cannot see his own reflection in the mirror? "Sís' cross-hatched oiland-gouache paintings extend the poems, working especially well to catch the sinister and frightening mood," wrote Booklist's Susan Dove Lempke.

"The meisters of madcap are at it again," a reviewer wrote in Publishers Weekly when Sís and Prelutsky's fourth collaboration, Scranimals, appeared. In Scranimals, Prelutsky and Sís's "best collaboration to date" in the opinion of School Library Journal reviewer Nina Lindsay, the two imagine a world full of crosses between animals and vegetables—such genetic wonders as the Hippopotamushroom, the Orangutangerine, and the Potatoad. Working with black ink and watercolors, Sís created "hallucinogenic art" that "takes Prelutsky's ever-clever comic verses in new directions," claimed a critic in Kirkus Reviews.

Sís also contributed images to The Tale of the Unknown Island, by a Portuguese Nobel Prize winner in literature, José Saramago. The work is a fairy tale for adults, centering upon a sailor who finds himself a favorite of the monarch. He tells the king that if he is given a ship, he will search for "the unknown island." Yes, he agrees, it does not appear on maps—and thus its name. A cleaning woman from the royal household decides to accompany him, and the next morning, after a night in port, they christen the vessel The Unknown Island.

Sís began a new series for young readers in 2000 with Madlenka, about a spirited little girl in New York City. When she realizes that her tooth is about to fall out, she ventures out onto her block to announce the news to her neighbors. The city's vibrant immigrant culture is the focus of the story, with Madlenka introducing her friends—the Latin greengrocer, the Indian owner of a news kiosk, an Italian ice-cream vendor—and the opposing page showing elements of their respective cultures or homelands. In the end, she has lost the tooth and returns to her worried parents with the blithe assurance that she was merely taking a global walk. Readers, predicted School Library Journal's Wendy Lukehart, "will pore over the many details, delighting in the emergence of forms and meaning provided by close inspection," while Gillian Engberg, writing for Booklist, commended Sís's "visually stunning spreads."

In the follow-up, Madlenka's Dog, the girl is again wandering her multicultural neighborhood. This time, she is walking her imaginary dog, an activity that causes the people she meets to reminisce about their own childhood pets. These "resonant intergenerational connections," Roger Sutton wrote in Horn Book, "make [Madlenka's Dog] an inspired choice for sharing." Then Madlenka bumps into her friend Cleopatra, who is out walking her own imaginary pet, a horse, and "the fantasy explodes into beautiful wordless spreads of the two friends soaring through the imagined worlds of their games," explained Booklist's Gillian Engberg. They roam through ancient Egypt, medieval Europe, and the Arctic before Madlenka returns home to find a special surprise awaiting her.

Sís once told SATA that through his work, he aims to cultivate free and open thought among children. He firmly believes that an artist's work should challenge a child's imagination. Especially intriguing to him is the wonder and innocence of early elementary-school students. "I really like talking to second graders," he said. "The young kids are wonderful because their minds are completely open. And the feelings children have here are probably the same as children have all over the world. It's amazing to see—in Asia, Thailand, Indonesia, or wherever—how similar the children are, whether they play with a piece of wood, or they play with a very sophisticated computer."

Sís also added: "I think children should have choices, and I would like to participate in their growth." Indeed, Sís advises young readers who aspire to a career as an artist to persevere and "not be intimidated by anybody." He believes that artistic talent should develop naturally, and a child should be left to "create freely—without any pressure to achieve commercial success."

Biographical and Critical Sources

BOOKS

Children's Literature Review, Volume 45, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1998.

Cummins, Julie, editor, Children's Book Illustration and Design, Library of Design, PBC International/Rizzoli (New York, NY), 1992.

Silvey, Anita, editor, Children's Books and Their Creators, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 1995.

PERIODICALS

Booklist, March 15, 1991, p. 468; December 1, 1994, Carolyn Phelan, review of The Three Golden Keys, p. 687; January 15, 1995, Michael Cart, review of The Three Golden Keys, p. 907; October 1, 1995, Ilene Cooper, review of The 13th Floor, p. 314; October 15, 1996, Carolyn Phelan, review of Starry Messenger: Galileo Galilei, p. 423; April 15, 1996, Janice M. Del Negro, review of Monday's Troll, p. 1437; November 15, 1997, Susan Dove Lempke, review of Sleep Safe, Little Whale: A Lullaby, p. 567; September 15, 1998, Ilene Cooper, review of Tibet: Through the Red Box, p. 195, and Kathleen Squires, review of Fire Truck, p. 240; June 1, 1999, Kathy Broderick, review of Trucks, Trucks, Trucks, p. 1844; September 1, 1999, Lauren Peterson, review of Ship Ahoy!, p. 143; October 1, 1999, Susan Dove Lempke, review of The Gargoyle on the Roof, p. 355; March 15, 2000, Gillian Engberg, review of Dinosaur!, p. 1389; September 1, 2000, Gillian Engberg, review of Madlenka, p. 126; April 1, 2001, Gillian Engberg, review of Ballerina!, p. 1480; April 1, 2002, Gillian Engberg, review of Madlenka's Dog, p. 1323; January 1, 2003, review of Madlenka's Dog, p. 799; February 15, 2003, Gillian Engberg, review of Animal Sense, p. 1068; October 15, 2003, Carolyn Phelan, review of The Tree of Life: A Book Depicting the Life of Charles Darwin, Naturalist, Geologist and Thinker, p. 408.

Commonweal, April 19, 2002, Daria Donnelly, review of The Little Wing Giver, p. 22.

Five Owls, September-October, 1991, pp. 1-3; May-June, 1993, Stephen Fraser, review of Komodo!, pp. 113-114.

Horn Book, September-October, 1991, Ellen Fader, review of Follow the Dream: The Story of Christopher Columbus, pp. 614-615; January-February, 1994, Ellen Fader, review of A Small Tall Tale from the Far Far North, p. 66; March-April, 1995, Mary M. Burns, review of The Three Golden Keys, pp. 189-190; May-June, 1996, Ann A. Flowers, review of Monday's Troll, p. 345; January-February, 1997, Roger Sutton, review of Starry Messenger, pp. 79-80; March-April, 1998, Peter Sís, "Tiny Pieces of Paint"; September-October, 1998, Marilyn Bousquin, review of Fire Truck, pp. 601-602; November, 1998, Roger Sutton, review of Tibet, p. 719; May, 1999, Marilyn Bousquin, review of Trucks, Trucks, Trucks, p. 322; September, 1999, Lolly Robinson, review of Ship Ahoy!, p. 601; July, 2000, review of Dinosaur!, p. 445; September, 2000, review of Madlenka, p. 558; March-April, 2002, Roger Sutton, review of Madlenka's Dog, pp. 205-206; November-December, 2003, Betty Carter, review of The Tree of Life, p. 768.

Journal News (Westchester, NY), October 7, 2003, Len Maniace, "Artist Draws His Way to 'Genius Grant,'" p. 1A.

Kirkus Reviews, April 1, 1999, p. 538; March 1, 2002, review of Madlenka's Dog, p. 345; July 15, 2002, review of Scranimals, p. 1042; September 15, 2003, review of The Tree of Life, p. 1182.

New York Times, December 6, 1996, Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, review of Starry Messenger, pp. B3, C18; October 13, 1998, Elisabeth Bumiller, "From Fathers to Children, a Twice-Told Tale," p. B2; December 2, 1998, Richard Bernstein, review of Tibet, p. E7; December 7, 1998, Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, review of Fire Truck, p. E7.

New York Times Book Review, November 8, 1987, Janwillem van de Wetering, review of Rainbow Rhino, p. 42; November 13, 1988, Liz Rosenberg, "Lonesome John Finds a Friend," p. 56; November 14, 1993, David Small, review of A Small Tall Tale from the Far Far North, p. 34; November 13, 1994, Patricia Hampl, review of The Three Golden Keys, p. 34; June 2, 1996, Zack Rogow, review of Monday's Troll, p. 25; November 10, 1996, Elizabeth Spires, "Stars Were Always on His Mind," p. 32; December 3, 1998, Scott Veale, review of Tibet, p. 22; April 11, 1999, Heather Vogel Frederick, review of Fire Truck, p. 32; January 16, 2000, Linnea Lannon, review of The Gargoyle on the Roof, p. 27; May 14, 2000, J. D. Biersdorfer, review of Dinosaur!, p. 18; November 19, 2000, A. O. Scott, review of Madlenka, p. 67; June 3, 2001, Adam Liptak, review of Ballerina!, p. 49; May 19, 2002, Beth Gutcheon, review of Madlenka's Dog, p. 27; December 8, 2002, review of Madlenka's Dog, p. 74; December 22, 2002, review of Scranimals, p. 18.

Parade, December 11, 1994, Peter Sís, "A Last 'Thank You' to Jackie," p. 16.

Print, January-February, 1995, "Remembering Mrs. Onassis: a memoir by Peter Sís," p. 21; November-December, 1998, Julie Lasky, "Mythical Kingdoms," p. 104.

Publishers Weekly, August 10, 1990, review of Beach Ball, p. 443; October 11, 1993, review of The Dragons Are Singing Tonight, p. 88; November 7, 1994, review of The Three Golden Keys, p. 76; November 14, 1994, Sally Lodge, "Peter Sís Goes Home Again," p. 26; October 9, 1995, review of The 13th Floor, p. 86; March 11, 1996, review of Monday's Troll, p. 64; April 29, 1996, Paul Nathan, "Special Handling," p. 25; November 4, 1996, review of Starry Messenger, p. 76; August 10, 1998, review of Tibet, p. 365; August 17, 1998, Heather Vogel Frederick, "Peter Sís's Red Box Diaries: A Glimpse of Old Tibet," p. 13; April 26, 1999, review of Trucks, Trucks, Trucks, p. 81; July 5, 1999, review of The Gargoyle on the Roof, p. 71; July 19, 1999, review of Ship Ahoy!, p. 193; March 26, 2001, review of Ballerina!, p. 92; July 16, 2001, p. 146; September 24, 2001, review of The Little Wing Giver, p. 92; June 24, 2002, review of Scranimals, p. 54; December 16, 2002, review of Animal Sense, p. 67; October 13, 2003, Elizabeth Devereaux, interview with Sís, p. 78, and review of The Tree of Life, pp. 79-80.

School Library Journal, September, 1990, Michael Cart, review of The Midnight Horse, p. 226; September, 1991, Jean H. Zimmerman, review of Follow the Dream, p. 249; December, 1993, Julie Cummins, review of The Three Golden Keys, p. 87; October, 1996, Wendy Lukehart, review of Starry Messenger, p. 118; September, 1998, Torrie Hodgson, review of Fire Truck, p. 182; October, 1998, Shirley Wilton, review of Tibet, p. 160; June, 2000, JoAnn Jonas, review of Dinosaur!, p. 125; October, 2000, Wendy Lukehart, review of Madlenka, p. 137; December, 2000, John Peters, review of The Wind Singer, p. 146; April, 2001, Patricia Pearl Dole, review of Ballerina!, p. 122; April, 2002, Lauralyn Persson, review of Madlenka's Dog, pp. 122-123; September, 2002, Nina Lindsay, review of Scranimals, p. 217; February, 2003, Lauralyn Persson, review of Animal Sense, p. 126; October, 2003, Margaret Bush, review of The Tree of Life, p. 204.

ONLINE

MacArthur Fellows Program Web Site, http://www.macarthur.org/(November 5, 2003), "Peter Sís."

Peter Sís Home Page, http://www.petersis.com/(November 5, 2003).

Peter Sís Tibet Web Site, http://www.petersistibet.com/ (November 5, 2003).

ZuZu, http://www.zuzu.org/(November 5, 2003), Joseph Puma and Brandon Ng, interview with Sís.

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