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Transcript from an interview with Peter Sís

Below is an edited transcript from Reading Rockets' interview with Peter Sís.

Peter Sis

Solitary beginnings

I didn't think about it before, but lately having kids I think about why I did what I did in my books. And I think it's all to do with not just leaving home, but not being able to go back. And that feeling of leaving one continent, coming to another, being in the new world, and trying to feel how other people felt before when they did something similar… It had to do a lot with what I was experiencing.

Even with the animals, it was always a lonely animal, if it was Rainbow Rhinoceros, or the whale, which doesn't fit anywhere. So I was feeling like I'm trying to find my way to fit in, which was really hard because would I have worked for the bank, I would see people every day.

But if you're an illustrator, you sit home most of the time. On top of it, I had a very time-consuming style which I invented in order to be very special, but it completely killed any free time, or any weekends. I think I'm sort of very lucky that I even found my wife!

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From The Three Musketeers to Britney Spears

When I came to do these illustrations, I was virtually working day and night and came up with this style of little dots. And that really took lots of time. But then unfortunately because people would see it in The New York Times, they would say, can you do a book like that? So all the first books were made of little dots.

But I was extremely lucky. I think it helps us sometimes in life that we have this inflated idea about ourselves. I thought, oh, I can do children's books. Children just will love my ideas. But growing up outside of United States, I knew nothing about pizza. I knew nothing about cartoons. I knew nothing about peanut butter and jelly. I didn't have any sort of connection with childhood, baseball. But I grew up with The Three Musketeers, or Monte Cristo. I just think it was sheer luck that even with that sort of distorted view of what's appealing to children, I was able in the beginning to do my books.

Everything changed since I have my own children. Because at first when they were born, I thought I have to leave some legacy or some message to them. So I did a book about Prague for Madeleine called Three Golden Keys. I thought, well, she will be wondering what her father was like… And then the same thing when my son was being expected. I did a book about Galileo, because I thought I have to do a book about somebody who was very special and show him that sometimes life can get difficult, like when Galileo has to answer all the questions of the Cardinals.

But then when the kids grew up a little bit, I realized they are not really interested in that at all. And since then, I am trying to sort of observe them and see what they like. So that will go for the little older books I did for my son, which were about fire trucks, which he loved, and bulldozers, and ships and dinosaurs. And for little girls, like Ballerina. Or the whole series I hope of Madlenka when the little girl who lives on the block in the big city meets all these people who are from different countries and different cultures. Because when I grew up in Prague, people really wouldn't speak to each other because they were just simply afraid to – the political regime and climate was terrible.

So now comes another problem, because when I did Madlenka, when I did Ballerina, they were little, so I could observe them, and I didn't have to ask them for permission or anything. And now of course, they've moved on because my time of work takes too long. So Madeleine is now nine and I have six year-old Madlenka and I can see that I cannot keep on going with them, because all of the sudden, I am not going to do a book about Madlenka listening to Britney Spears or something. So in a way, I will have to let them go and stay with some sort of dream of six years.

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The first Czech in Tibet

He was sent to make a film about this construction of the road to Tibet, and it was just him and the cameraman. So you had two 25 year-old guys with 35 millimeters. It was incredible, because they had these heavy, heavy cameras, and crates full of film.

But I didn't know any of that. I was little. I knew my father left and he told my mother he would be back for Christmas… When I was little, I thought he left for many, many years. But then looking at his diaries, he left for 19 months. But at that time I was four and by the time he came back, because he'd spent two Christmases, I went to school. So lots of things changed and it was never the same.

And he came back, and he couldn't really talk about what he had seen because he was supposed to talk about things like the working class in China. So that whole thing about Tibetan Buddhism and Dalai Lama and all that was not appreciated, so the only person he could talk to was me. And also he wanted to reestablish our relationship. So he would tell me about this country called Tibet. And I thought it was a fairy tale. He told me about this guy all in gold who was Dalai Lama, who was 19.

So then it was amazing. When I did the book I actually presented the first copy to Dalai Lama, who I met and gave him the scarf he gave to my father 45 years before that when he was 19. So in a way it was a full circle, because the whole family then lived from these stories my father was telling about Tibet. He was the first person from Prague who went to Tibet, so he became like a celebrity who was in Tibet.

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Not a big deal

I sort of have it in my head, and then I would like to do pictures first. And then I have to come up the text. I'm blessed because I have an editor who understands me, or doesn't want to make me angry. So she's very gentle, and then I come up with some text which is necessary to explain what I meant. But I try to keep the text minimal, because in a way, how I speak or express myself is more in the pictures – maybe because I came from somewhere else. I always cringe when kids would say, well, you are the writer… I don't consider myself a writer at all.

And also I'm trying to desperately show to kids that it's not a big deal what I'm doing. I even had a show in Prague when I purposefully left all the pictures without any mounts so they would see that I mess up, that the sides have dripping colors. The people in the exhibit put steps up so the kids could come and look at it. Because I remember when I was little, I saw some paintings which look absolutely exquisite. I thought, I can never do this. So I would like to get somehow the message over that yes, you can do that, and yes, you can have a good idea even if you are 12. And if you put it on the paper and make some doodles, maybe somebody will look at it.

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For the love of reading

I realize it all depends. I didn't want to put him under pressure, because my impression in New York schools was that, compared with where I grew up, everybody came to Kindergarten and said, well, our son will be a lawyer, and our son will be a… Nobody said, my son will be a carpenter. Or I want my son to be happy…

I just want him to read with love, and be happy, and do it right. So now he's reading every night wonderfully, but he's getting very slowly into it. And definitely the parents who would want him to be a lawyer at Harvard would say, oh, you are too slow! You're seven and you're reading so slowly! But I think it's like walking – he will read just fine. And it's more important that he will really love books and read them.

So I don't know how helpful I am, but I definitely don't do it with my own books because I'm sort of embarrassed to say, you have to read my own books! So maybe they don't even know that much about my books as some other kids. I think it's better that way. I said that at school they shouldn't say that I do books, that they should say I'm a trumpet player.

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"I have always imagined that paradise will be a kind of library." — Jorge Luis Borges