Peter Sís didn't start out as a creator of children's books. His training was in fine arts and film making, similar to that of his father whose strange experiences while making films in Tibet are recounted in the Caldecott Honor book Tibet Through the Red Box. According to Peter, this book is his most personal to date. He wrote it when he learned of his father's failing health. He realized that if he was ever going to capture the stories that he heard as a child and get his father's input, the time was now. Happily the book is complete, and his father is able to enjoy it. Interestingly, Peter was able to present a copy of the book to the Dalai Lama wrapped in the very scarf that the Dalai Lama had given his father. For Peter it was like a fairy tale come true.
Peter came to the US in 1982 to make a film that celebrated the human spirit at the Olympic Games. He was also asked to make an animated film of Bob Dylan for the nascent MTV, which at the time was an exciting and experimental undertaking. Unfortunately Peter, a native of Czechoslovakia, overstayed his visa and as the months and years passed by he became increasingly concerned about returning home to a country in the grip of Soviet oppression. He became a refugee. Through connections with people like Maurice Sendak, Peter was able to enter the world of children's books.
To date his more than twenty books have won the New York Times Best Illustrated Book of the Year Award five times, for Beach Ball, Rainbow Rhino, Follow the Dream, The Three Golden Keys, and Starry Messenger: Galileo Galilei (also a Caldecott Honor book). One of my favorites, Small Tall Tale from the Far, Far North tells about the life of Arctic explorer Jan Welzl, a Czech folk hero whose odyssey Peter recounts and beautifully illustrates. He uses maps, storyboards and pictographs to tell the fantastic story.
Although his Tibet book is for an older audience, Peter has great rapport with younger kids-having two young sons of his own undoubtedly helps. Among his more delightful books for little ones are Beach Ball and Fire Truck. The latter is an imaginative story featuring young Matt who loves fire trucks, so much that one day he wakes up and he is a fire truck, until the smell of delicious pancakes pulls him back into reality.
Contributor: Marilyn Courtot
Find out more about Peter Sís and his books at www.petersis.com.
Click here for information about his MacArthur Fellowship ; for a press release about The Tree of Life: Charles Darwin; a question and answer piece about The Little Wing Giver; and another question and answer piece about The Wall.
The 13th Floor: A Ghost Story
Illustrations by Peter Sís
Forget those romantic notions of by-gone days and the adventurous life of a sailor. This adventure, penned by a very gifted writer, transports a modern youngster back in time to meet his Puritan fathers. Along with learning the ropes-and the sails-on the ocean-blue, Buddy learns the ins and outs of piracy, witch hunting, puritan punishments and the raw difficulty of life in the 1600's. 1995, Greenwillow, Ages 8 to 12, $15.00 and $3.99. Reviewer: Deborah Zink Roffino
No words at all are needed to tell the tale of a young boy, his toy dinosaur, his bath, and his imagination. He is at first frightened, then amazed, as dinosaur after dinosaur emerges from the water, looming over the ever-shrinking tub, becoming a herd in a prehistoric volcanic landscape. A thick black outline defines the very simply drawn, flatly colored subjects; the only colors are a bit of tan for his hair and green for the creatures. But in the climactic triple foldout, the dinosaurs are drawn in a scene rich with naturalistic detail, as they head off stage, leaving the delighted youngster in the overflowing tub. Reality returns with mom racing to his rescue with a towel. Outline drawings of identified dinos fill the endpapers. 2000, Greenwillow Books/HarperCollins Publishers, Ages 3 to 6, $14.95. Reviewer: Ken Marantz and Sylvia Marantz
The Dragons are Singing Tonight
Illustrations by Peter Sís
Now, while Jurassic Park sweeps the country, poet Jack Prelutsky turns his talents to different lizards in The Dragons Are Singing Tonight. While the movie uses technology to work its magic, Prelutsky uses a similarly fantastic technology of words to amaze and delight readers from six to twelve. Dragons are special to Prelutsky. Through years of going into Chinese restaurants and reading their place mats, he noticed that he was born in a year of the dragon, he took the dragon to heart. Prelutsky grew up in the Bronx with an asthmatic mother who wouldn't allow pets and dreamed of having his own dragon... a small one, of course, that he could manage and train. Some of the poems reveal his boyhood dream. 1993, Greenwillow, Ages 3 up, $16.00 and $15.93. Reviewer: Susie Wilde
Matt loves fire trucks, so much that one day he wakes up and he is a fire truck. His big red fire truck has one driver, two ladders, three hoses and lots of other fire fighting equipment. What fun zooming around extinguishing fires and rescuing his stuffed animals. But wait, what is that smell in the air? Matt heads for the kitchen, and when he sees the pancakes on the table, the little boy reappears to enjoy his delicious breakfast. Executed primarily in black and red, this tale will appeal to kids who have lots of imagination. The counting lesson is incidental to the fantasy adventure. 1998, Greenwillow, Ages 2 to 4, $14.95. Reviewer: Marilyn Courtot
Follow the Dream
Words and pictures are beautifully synchronized in this read-aloud, look-together book for young and old side-by-side. The few words, a smooth blend of fact and legend, capture the historic episode's essence: An ambitious, 15th century dreamer/explorer is determined to sail west across an uncharted ocean, he perseveres, and does. 1991, Knopf, Ages 3 to 10, $15.00. Reviewer: Beverly Kobrin
The Gargoyle on the Roof
Pictures by Peter Sís
Scary poems and terrifying pictures combine to make another winner of a book, but steer clear of this one if your youngster has an apprehensive streak-or, at least, read it only under a bright sunshiny light! "Beneath a bridge, a greedy troll/ Perennially waits," could jinx bridges forever for the faint-hearted. And "My sister is a werewolf,/ It's disquieting and strange how I wish she were a vampire/ Like her loving family" is certainly a horrendous (delicious?) choice to contemplate. "Gorgeous" pictures of gargoyles make this a colorful choice for the courageous. 1999, Greenwillow, Ages 5 to 10, $16.00. Reviewer: Judy Chernak
Halloween Stories and Poems
Edited by Caroline Feller Bauer
Illustrated by Peter Sis
The cover illustration makes this collection look more frightening than it is. There are four delightful short stories "King of the Cats, A Ghost Story," "The Hairy Toe," "The Jigsaw Puzzle," and "The Bed Just So" and lots of poems to help kids celebrate this favorite holiday. It is also a useful collection for teachers and librarians who may be searching for that special something for Halloween. 1989, HarperTrophy, Ages 4 up, $13.00, $12.89, and $4.95. Reviewer: Marilyn Courtot
Monster-sized lizards reside on the island of Komodo, in Indonesia. This is the story of a young traveler who wants a close range sighting of the sole survivor of the dinosaur. Imaginative, precise, oversized pictures say more than the limited text. 1993, Greenwillow Books, Ages All, $16.00 and $15.93. Reviewer: Deborah Zink Roffino
Illustrated by Peter Sis
"Monday's troll is mean and rotten, / Tuesday's troll is misbegotten, / Wednesday's troll is extra smelly, / Thursday's troll has a baggy belly." And what of Friday, Saturday and Sunday's trolls? Prelutsky's zany new book of poetry on unsavory characters such as ogres, wizards, goblins and giants tells the rest of the story. Sporting thematically illustrated gold borders on each page, Sis' attractive illustrations will delight the eye. Prelutsky's gross humor will evoke giggles in child readers, while adults will find the impressive vocabulary and imaginative ideas refreshing. Although Monday's Troll has something for everyone, troll lovers will find it particularly delightful. 1996, Greenwillow, Ages 4 up, $16.00 and $15.93. Reviewer: Michelle H. Martin
This wordless book is a paean to imagination. A little boy is sitting on a couch with an oval blue rug in front of him. The couch becomes a rubber raft, an Indian canoe, an oriental junk, pirate ship and ocean liner. Suddenly, a vacuum cleaner appears and it is transformed into a great sea monster that spreads over three pages. Mom joins her son and together they sit on the rug where she proceeds to read a story. All of the pictures are painted in shades of blue to match the watery world of the little boy's imagination. 1999, Greenwillow/Morrow, Ages 2 to 5, $14.95. Reviewer: Marilyn Courtot
Sleep Safe, Little Whale
Pictures by Peter Sís
A lilting text with repetitive phrases should help little ones drop off to sleep. The text describes various animals that are safely guarded by loving caregivers. Bordered and framed pictures are painted in muted colors appropriate for the end of day when youngsters are preparing for slumberland. The accordion style book opens up into a panoramic view that shows all of the animals, and a few new ones not mentioned in the lullaby, sweetly attentive to their own little ones. 1997, Greenwillow, Ages 2 to 4, $14.95 and $14.89. Reviewer: Marilyn Courtot
A Small Tall Tale from the Far Far North
The endpapers with small icebergs floating on an endless deep green sea give a clue that this book has an Arctic or Polar setting. It is the story of Jan Welzl who left his home in Czechoslovakia to explore the remote Arctic. He lived alone in a cave, hunting and trapping to obtain fresh food. One day when he is caught by a magnetic stone, he is rescued by Eskimo hunters and spends time with these generous and kind people. He learns their stories and about their way of life in order to survive in this harsh climate. He fears that their way of life will be destroyed by those seeking gold and others who will bring violence through guns and liquor. Sis has based his book on the real experiences of Welzl who spent 30 years in these frozen lands. 1993, Knopf, Ages 5 to 10, $15.00 and $15.99. Reviewer: Marilyn Courtot
I wish I could recommend author/illustrator Peter Sis' Starry Messenger, the life story of Galileo, with enthusiasm. It is a readable biography with interesting illustrations by Mr. Sis which spans Galileo's life, and beyond-he was declared a heretic in 1633 and pardoned only in 1992! Galileo was born in Pisa in 1564 and, unlike Leonardo Da Vinci, he was able to study mathematics and physics. He, too, was unusually curious and took steps to satisfy his curiosity. He developed the instrument we now call a telescope and determined that the sun, not the earth, is the center of our universe. His insistence on popularizing this notion in contravention of church doctrine led to his inquisition and house arrest. Mr. Sis tells Galileo's story succinctly. He illustrates it in two styles: whimsical and ornate. In addition to his use of conventional typography, Mr. Sis has laced his book with hard-to read cursive writing, much of it turned at unusual angles. This makes the volume a chore to read and adds little-actually subtracts much-from what might otherwise be a fine biography. 1996, Farrar Strauss Giroux, Ages 12 up, $16.00. Reviewer: Beverly Kobrin
Tibet Through the Red Box
When Peter Sís' father calls him to Prague and tells him the red box and its contents are now his, Peter's childhood memories are reawakened. The Czech government sent his father, a filmmaker, to China in 1950. His job was to document the construction of a highway into Tibet. As Peter reads the diary of his father's time in Tibet, he is reminded of stories his father told upon his return; stories that made Tibet sound like a fairy tale country. He has taken parts of the diary and retold the tales in this beautifully illustrated book. The illustrations clearly delineate the sections: the diary accounts are on parchment-colored pages, the stories are on white with a family picture in which his father is only a white outline, while the Tibetan landscapes are in full-color on double page spreads. With each section of the diary and its accompanying story, readers are brought back to his father's study in Prague. We sense the author's mood as the light of the room changes from red to green to blue to black. Sís' mandalas are full of intricate detail and Buddhist symbolism. He has successfully combined personal reminiscence and childhood longing with his father's eyewitness account of the invasion of Tibet in a beautifully executed picture book format. 1998, Farrar Straus Giroux, Ages 10 up, $25.00. Reviewer: Sharon Salluzzo
Trucks Trucks Trucks
Presumably, it is Matt's Mom who has asked him to clean up his room. We then see each truck along with a single word describing what it does. The illustrations, mostly in yellow-orange, spread over two pages until near the end one unfolds to reveal a crane stretching upward on three pages. Each successive truck is bigger and fills more of the page as does the size of the word describing its action. There are nine of them, and the numbers one through nine also appear in the structure of the crane. Deceptively simple, there is more here than may meet the eye initially. After his room is cleaned up, Matt gets to go out and see the real trucks in action. 1999, Greenwillow/Morrow, Ages 2 to 4, $14.95. Reviewer: Marilyn Courtot
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