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The Worlds of Peter Sís

An Interview with Peter Sís

by Tana Elias

Peter Sís is an internationally recognized author and illustrator of children's books with a wide artistic background including work as a filmmaker, graphic designer, and set designer. His work has received many awards, including Caldecott Honor Book for Starry Messenger: Galileo Galilei (1997) and Tibet: Through the Red Box (1999). Mr. Sís will be an Arts Institute Interdisciplinary Artist in Residence at the UW-Madison in the summer of 2001, cosponsored by the Department of Art, the Cooperative Children's Book Center, and the Elvehjem Museum of Art.

TE: The book Tibet is based on your father's experiences in Tibet in the mid 1950's and your own recollections of your father's stories on his return. You had the opportunity to present a copy of Tibet: Through the Red Box to the Dalai Lama – what did you take away from that experience?

PS: To meet the Dalai Lama as a grown up person was a sheer joy. He must be the most intelligent and smiley representative/politician living today. I was present at two of his speeches (and one more since), and wish every head of church, country or company could be at least a little bit like him. How many of us meet a prince, king or hero from their childhood fairy tale? That is exactly what happened to me with Dalai Lama. When my father came back from Tibet and told me all those stories, I had no idea he was talking about a real person. To meet him forty-five years later and see that he is real is an amazing feeling. Strange – you're sort of connecting with your childhood while losing the magic, or confirming the magic of your childhood while wondering why the prince of that long gone fairy tale has to wear glasses. The admiration and amazement won in the end. When I proudly told my father I had met with his holiness he, feeling I am too close to his lifelong expertise, said, "But you have only touched the tip, my son." After all, it is their Tibet......

TE: Your father is a filmmaker, as well. Have you ever collaborated on a project?

PS: I was in two of my father's feature films have a boy (I ruined a scene lip synching everything the leading actor said.) I did five or six posters for my father's films. He wrote lyrics for a rock song on which my film, Mimikry (my diploma work in 1979), was based. He was the inspiration and sounding board behind Follow the Dream, Small Tall Tale from the Far Far North, Starry Messenger, and big parts of Tibet. Good question - I did not even realize how many projects we have worked on.

TE: Your animated short films have won awards in many countries. Do you feel your work as an animator influenced your picture book style in any way?

PS: I am thinking lately how much film has influenced my work. I am getting film offers and think, "Do I want to deal with the producers, writers and pressures of the market or shall I keep on doing my books (sort of secret films)?" In books, film editing is replaced by turning of the page; the stories start and end in the dark, and the audience is wondering what it was all about. My father, mother, sister, and brother have all worked in film at one time or another as director, editor, or working on scripts. So in a way that is the way I want it. And, who knows, I might get back to animation one day soon.

TE: Many of your picture books have a medieval feel to them, and you've written that you were influenced by Bosch, Brueghel, and German Gothic painters. Do you feel that your art style has become more "American" in any way since you've been in the United States?

PS: Three different people, on three different continents, told me I was a monk illuminating manuscripts in my previous life. Not that I quite believe these things. Not that I know what religion, century or how good the illuminations were… It is true I have a great affection for the "old manuscript" feeling. That is one thing. To be more American, sure, I had no other choice – I had to pay rent. But if it happened, it was very subtle, disguised in the compromises with the publications and the publishers. I do not see it as becoming more American, I see it as being very, very lucky in America.

TE: Your books often have themes of imagination, exploration, and perseverance in both personal and political ways, from the discoveries of Galileo to the celebrations of Madlenka. Are these ideas of creativity and its transformative powers ones that you consciously convey to your young audience? What do you hope children take away from the picture books they experience?

PS: Yes, I cannot hide it any more, even though I do not really have any master plan or vision. When I look at the pile of my books – being amazed by the numbers – there is a feeling of being inspired by imagination, exploration, perseverance. Perhaps all of those could be attributed to the "emigrant experience." I think it is wonderful I can pass them on to a young (or even old) audience. I was thinking about all this just recently while visiting Prague. If I had never left, would I have different ideas? Sure. Would I even be doing books? Maybe. I hope children will find something constant in my books, something like an island in the stream of the fast moving world.

TE: What are you working on now?

PS: I have just finished Madlenka's Dog, a.k.a. Madlenka Wants a Dog, a follow-up to Madkenka. Madlenka wants a dog. Her parents do not want to hear about it. So she "imagines" her dog and walks with a leash around the block. Her friends and neighbors "imagine" she has the dog they had or wanted to have when they were little. The book has a dress up part and a triumphant finale. Maybe I cannot quite describe it, maybe you have to see it. I am also working on a book about Charles Darwin. Hard. I am thinking about many other things. Sleepless nights. I can't wait to be in Madison and get things in perspective.

Read More about Peter Sís:

"Peter Sís." Something About the Author, vol. 106. Gale, 1999.

Sís, Peter. "The Artist at Work," The Horn Book Magazine (November/December, 1992). p. 681-687.

Sís, Peter. "You Want to Tell Everybody Back Home What You've Seen," Journal of Youth Services in Libraries (Winter 1996), p. 134-135.

Selected Books by Peter Sís:

Ballerina! Greenwillow, 2000.

Beach Ball. Greenwillow, 1990.

Dinosaur! Greenwillow, 2000.

Fire Truck. Greenwillow, 1998.

Follow the Dream. Alfred A. Knopf, 1991.

Going Up!: A Color Counting Book. Greenwillow, 1989.

The Three Golden Keys. Doubleday, 1994.

Komodo! Greenwillow, 1993.

Madlenka. Frances Foster/Farrar Straus Giroux, 2000.

An Ocean World. Greenwillow, 1992.

Rainbow Rhino. Alfred A. Knopf, 1987.

A Small Tall Tale from the Far Far North. Alfred A. Knopf, 1993.

Starry Messenger. Frances Foster / Farrar Straus Giroux, 1996.

Tibet: Through the Red Box. Frances Foster / Farrar Straus Giroux, 1998.

Trucks, Trucks, Trucks. Greenwillow, 1999.

Waving: A Counting Book. Greenwillow, 1988.

Selected Books Illustrated by Peter Sís:

Banks, Kate. Alphabet Soup. Alfred A. Knopf, 1988.

Cohen, Carol Lee. Three Yellow Dogs. Greenwillow, 1986.

Fleischman, Sid. The Whipping Boy. Greenwillow, 1986.

Livingston, Myra Cohn. Higgledy Piggledy. Macmillan, 1986.

Nicholson, William. The Wind Singer. Hyperion, 2000.

Noel, Christopher. Rumplestiltskin. Rabbit Ears Books, 1995.

Prelutsky, Jack. The Dragons Are Singing Tonight. Greenwillow, 1993.

Prelutsky, Jack. The Gargoyle on the Roof. Greenwillow, 1999.

Prelutsky, Jack. Monday's Troll. Greenwillow, 1996.

Rice, Eve. City Night. Greenwillow, 1987.

Schlein, Miriam. Sleep Safe, Little Whale. Greenwillow, 1997.

Shannon, George. Stories to Solve: Folktales from Around the World. Greenwillow, 1985.

Reprinted from Friends of the CCBC Newsletter 2001, Number 1 with permission of Tana Elias and the Friends of the CCBC, Inc. ©2001 Friends of the CCBC, Inc.


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