I Instagram-ed that it was like a dream to see Peter Sís in person, and it truly was a dream come true. Mr. Sís has been creating children's books for three decades, but I didn't become aware of his work until my son was born in 2000 and I bought Madlenka for our home library. His art is part of the reason why I was inextricably drawn into children's literature as an adult. His role in where my passions (children's literature and literacy) now lie is huge, and I will forever be grateful for that ... and for the opportunity I had to personally thank him.
Mr. Sís was at Politics and Prose to talk about his new book, The Pilot and the Prince: The Life of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, a beautiful picture book biography of the author of The Little Prince.
[Peter Sís and the Czech copy of The Little Prince his father gave him when he was a child.
It doesn't have any illustrations.]
It doesn't have any illustrations.]
When Mr. Sís was 12, his father gave him a copy of The Little Prince, and the story has stayed with him ever since. Re-reading it at different stages and milestones in his adult life (e.g. when he moved to New York, when he read it to his children) revealed different emotions and personal discoveries. The two authors also have a similar life circumstance of living in New York, away from their home country, and creating something artistically (Mr. Sís started his illustrating career in NYC in 1984 and Saint-Exupéry wrote The Little Prince in 1942).
[A page from Peter Sís's idea/sketchbook for The Pilot and the Prince. He creates them in blank bound books. I didn't browse through it, but what I saw of it was quite beautiful and would make a fascinating published book as-is! While drafting his books, he creates his illustrations as line drawings, which he wishes he could always do. Not surprisingly, his friend, Mo Willems, suggests he should do just that!]
[Showing the kids what a WWII pilot might look like!]
Although he looks fairly serious in this picture, he was incredibly kind, silly, self-deprecating, and enthralling to listen to. The student audience skewed rather young -- I'm guessing they were first graders -- but they were a polite and good audience. It was so very cute that Mr. Sís thanked them for being so patient and attentive. One interaction in particular was adorable: In true Little Kid fashion, one of them asked Mr. Sís what his favorite ice cream flavor is. Mr. Sís got excited because he's actually writing a book about ice cream, and he delighted in this coincidence (the other coincidence was that on his hotel room door there's a picture of Thomas Jefferson, the first person to bring an ice cream machine to America from France).
[He took the time to sign and doodle in the four books I brought with me. He was very generous with his time with each fan, to the point of being reminded by P&P staff that he still had a huge stack of books downstairs to sign for the school kids! This was the first children's book event I went to at P&P with so many adults in the audience. He clearly has wide appeal across age groups.]
There was one serious moment at the end of the talk. He mentioned that The Pilot and the Prince is dedicated to Frances Foster, his long-time editor. Ms. Foster was forced to retire after suffering a stroke (I believe), but she had worked with Mr. Sís to get The Pilot and the Prince started. When Mr. Sís went to visit her before his talk at P&P, he knew that she didn't recognize him, but he held up a page from the book, hoping the illustration of the blue sky would reflect in her own blue eyes, a little ode to her that Mr. Sís slipped into the book. Sadly, Ms. Foster passed away a few days later. Mr. Sís posted this illustration on his Facebook page:
And one last story: The night before his P&P talk, Mr. Sís went to Jaleo for dinner, where they mistook him for a restaurant critic and plied him with food until he felt ill. He tried to tell them he wasn't a critic, but they insisted on bringing him food, saying, "No, no, we know who you are"!
Oh, and if you're wondering what Mr. Sís's favorite ice cream flavor is, it's mango (he thinks!).
- Brain Pickings: "The Pilot and the Little Prince: Beloved Illustrator Peter Sís Captures the Bittersweet Story of Antoine de Saint-Exupery"
- NPR: "In the Cockpit, Gazing at Stars: Saint-Exupéry's Life In Pictures"
- Slate: "Peter Sís and Margaret Ferguson: The Slate Book Review Author-Editor Conversation"