Catching Up with Peter Sis
By Anna Maslakovic
It starts with a surprising discovery or a deeply felt emotion. Lines and dots follow, a simple sketch on a piece of paper. Over the ensuing months, dots grow by the hundreds. A face might emerge from a snowflake, a wall, or the body of a fish.
Peter Sis, a MacArthur Fellow and Newberry Medal winner with films in the permanent collection at the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA), is one of over 60 writers and artists attending the inaugural Chappaqua Children’s Book Festival on October 5. His pointillist, surrealist style graces over 20 books and is integral to an artistic quest that began behind the Iron Curtain and led to New York City and Westchester.
Born in 1949, Sis grew up in communist Prague and from an early age loved to draw. He channeled his non-conformist art into animation because the field was under the radar of the regime’s censors. In 1982, on a government-sponsored trip to the U.S., Sis decided not to return home. A conversation with Maurice Sendak led him to children’s illustration. The first book he illustrated, The Whipping Boy by Sid Fleishman, won the Newberry Medal. Many more projects followed. Sis has a studio in downtown Manhattan and lives with his family in Irvington.
He is attracted to subjects with deep personal meaning. “For years, I watched my children grow and tried to create books that might interest them,” he says. Madlenka was meant for his young daughter. With Starry Messenger, the award-winning biography of Galileo Galilei, Sis hoped to instruct his son about the value of science. The Wall casts their father’s history within a pictorial trajectory of the Cold War. Since both children are grown now, Sis is learning to cope with the empty nest syndrome. “I have to think harder,” he says.
His books often involve travel. In The Three Golden Keys, Sis makes a magical return to the labyrinthine and memory-laden Prague of his youth in the company of a black cat. A Small Tall Tale From the Far North spins an arctic quest from fact and fiction. As in real life, there are journeys within journeys. Drawing on layers of bedtime stories, diary entries, myths, and haunting imagery, Tibet Through Red Box juxtaposes a trek on the roof of the world with a poignant father-son reunion and a reassessment of one’s own beliefs and desires.
The book as journey idea, Sis says, “comes from a childhood and young adulthood in a place where it was impossible to go far. Perhaps also from the Jules Verne 19th century sentiment that travel is romantic.”
Sis’ creative process is intuitive. “Publishers give deadlines,” he says, “but I enjoys pictures so much that I could just do that.” After an initial sketch or two, he watches what happens and experiments until things fall into place. “Sometimes I’ll sketch a dream and then decide weeks later that it’s stupid.”
Sis has a new book coming out in Spring 2014 about Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, pilot and author of The Little Prince. As a boy, he was taken with “this beautiful book about how life can be.” Many decades later, he was surprised to discover that the Frenchman wrote The Little Prince in New York during a period of great personal hardship. The book was published shortly before he flew his plane to South Africa on a mission to liberate France and was killed. Sis’ book, The Pilot and the Little Prince, is a tribute to his childhood hero and to New York.
Sis remembers spending many hours in bed curled up with books as a boy. He is worried that with Google and iPads reading habits and attention spans are changing. “Now, in one minute, you can find out about Komodo Dragon. When everything is known, what’s left?” He hopes to help make the world better by encouraging kids follow their instincts and “become explorers like Marco Polo, even in their own backyards.”
Where will his artistic road take him next? Sis says that he dreams about doing a book without words. Visual language is “amazingly universal.”
Sis is looking forward to the book festival on October 5th. “If Westchester can keep the reading tradition that would be awesome. Chappaqua is a beautiful place. It’s wonderful when a community can come together.”
Anna Maslakovic is the web designer and editor for the Chappaqua Children’s Book Festival. She is working on a memoir and lives in Chappaqua with her husband and two young sons.