Peter Sis: An Odyssey in Pictures

“I will never lose that obsession with film even though I haven’t done film in a long time,” Peter Sis explained on the eve of the opening of “The Picture Book Odysseys of Peter Sís” at The Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art. Sís is perhaps best known as a picture book writer and illustrator with a number of awards to his credit; his books have been named the best illustrated of the year eight times by the New York Times Book Review, and he won a MacArthur Fellowship in 2003. Sis also received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Society of Illustrators in 2015.  

Photo credit: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Photo credit: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Film, however, opened up the world to Sís. Born behind the Iron Curtain in Czechoslovakia in 1949—explored in Sís’ award-winning The Wall: Growing Up Behind the Iron Curtain (2007)— his father, Vladimir, was drafted into the army film unit and sent to China to teach filmmaking to Chinese filmmakers. Vladimir spent three years lost in Tibet before returning to his family, which Sís wrote about in Tibet: Through the Red Box (1998). “I didn’t even recognize him [when he returned] but he would tell stories from the Himalayas and India. He became the most interesting source of stories,” he says. “Czechoslovakia was a small country. You couldn’t go any place at any time. He gave me the idea of magical traveling, exploring, and also filmmaking.”. 

At one point everyone in the Sís family was involved in filmmaking: his sister was a film editor,  his brother was a film director, and his mother worked on films with his father. Sís eventually married American film editor, Terry Lajtha.  

As an animator, Sís first came to the US because of his film The Heads (1980) before defecting, bringing a new set of problems, namely, making ends meet. And to that end, children’s books weren’t part of Sís’ early repertoire. “I never thought I would create books. The first book I did was because I was penniless, so I thought I’d make a book and turn it into a film.” In fact, Sís considers his children’s books more akin to scripts than anything else.  

Sís’s books cover a variety of topics from biographies of famous explorers and thinkers to more magical, almost surrealistic narratives. When asked what drew him to these subjects, Sís explained that initially he was “happy to get any job to pay the rent.”  However, “I was trying to be like my father, to go on an expedition, I happened to be on an expedition in America,” using his adventures in the United States to fuel his projects.  

Biographies of explorers like Galileo Galilei, Charles Darwin, Christopher Columbus drew Sís because these were stories about people he admired. “They had to prove what they wanted to do was right,” he explains, especially when their contemporaries believed they were wrong.

Maps figure prominently in many Sís stories, which the author says were inspired by his father’s Tibetan adventures. Sís also likes the aesthetics of maps because “they help to establish where I am and where I am going.” 

Follow the Sís adventures at “The Picture Book Odysseys of Peter Sís,” on view at The Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art, which includes 90 original illustrations from 26 picture books and runs until October 27th.

 Elisa Shoenberger is a researcher and writer. She has published articles and essays at the Boston Globe, the Rumpus, Deadspin, Syfy, and other outlets. She is a regular contributor to Book Riot and is the co-editor and co-founder of The Antelope: A Journal of Oral History and Mayhem.