Robinson + an interview with Peter Sís

Robinson High res - Copy

by Peter Sís (Scholastic, 2017)

Here’s a special thing for you that was a huge honor for me.

Meet Peter Sís. You might know him from an incredible stack of books like Starry Messenger, The Wall, and The Pilot and the Little Prince. His latest, Robinson, is a sort of mashup of Sís’s own childhood and the adventures of Robinson Crusoe. Surprising, refreshing, and familiar.

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When, how, or why did you get into picture books?

Growing up in Czechoslovakia I loved to illustrate stories that my father and grandfather told me as a child, but I never thought about becoming an illustrator while in art school. I was thinking about a future in fine arts and fell in love with animation. I won the Golden Bear Award at the Berlin Film Festival with my short film “Heads.” I got invited to Hollywood in 1982 to work on an animated film project for the summer Olympic Games in 1984. Animation takes a long time so I was still working on the film when the Soviet bloc countries pulled out of the Olympics, and I did not return home.

I was trying to figure out my future as an artist in America when Maurice Sendak came to the rescue. “So, you want to be in children’s books?” he said. He gave me such a lovely introduction to publishing that I have been in the picture book world ever since.

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Can you tell us the story of how Robinson came to be?

Robinson is a memory from my childhood which came back to me when my sister found an old photograph of me dressed up in furs as Robinson Crusoe for a school costume party. It was a flashback to a moment when I felt ridiculed by my friends. I loved the book Robinson Crusoe. And my creative wonderful mother made me an outrageous costume of the brave castaway, for which I won the top prize for the most imaginative character. But all my friends made fun of it.

I remember very well how mortified and foolish I felt. Yet I loved the book so much that somehow it made it all worthwhile. My new book, Robinson, is about the power of books for a child.

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What does it mean to you to be a recipient of the Hans Christian Anderson award?

It means one is recognized by one’s peers all over the world for lifetime achievement. That is wonderful and also alarming because it means you are getting old. But I love that it creates a connection to my teachers and mentors: Jiri Trnka, Maurice Sendak and Quentin Blake.

One of my favorites from your backlist is Madlenka. Do you have any favorite stories in your catalog? And why?

For many years, I was inspired by my children. My son gave me the idea for Fire Truck because we lived across the street from a fire station, and he was passionate about them. I discovered life in America and the colorful, multicultural world of my new country through my daughter, Madeleine (or Madlenka), who is very curious and creative and had many adventures on the block where we lived in downtown Manhattan. This global diversity was so inspirational for me because I came from a country where everybody and everything looked the same. Now my children are grown, but I still have many stories from their childhood that have yet to make it into a book.

I also value the story about my father, Tibet Through the Red Box, and a book about my childhood hero, Jan Welzl, A Small Tall Tale from the Far Far North. The Three Golden Keys brings back special memories of Prague for me.

Who are some of your story heroes?

Robinson Crusoe, Antoine de Saint Exupery, Czech president, Vaclav Havel, Swallows and Amazons, Charlie Chaplin, Milos Forman (I created the poster for his film Amadeus), John Lennon and the Yellow Submarine.

I also had unique heroes as a child since my grandfather worked on the design of train stations in Cleveland and Chicago in the 1930’s. He collected comic strips from the Chicago Tribune and got them bound into a book which was bigger than I was. Unlike other Czech kids, I grew up with Little Orphan Annie, Mutt and Jeff, and Crazy Cat. I loved that book so much that the newsprint slowly fell apart.

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What’s your favorite piece of art in your house?

My favorite piece of art is by Lane Smith. We did a picture exchange, but I still owe him his! Sorry, Lane, it is coming!

What’s next for you?

Ha, good question. I am inspired by the story of Nicholas Winton who saved 669 children before the Nazis arrived in Czechoslovakia in 1939. He organized trains that took them to England. I am also thinking about a story of a little refugee of today who faces all kinds of dangers before arriving in the free world. And how I met the Beatles and worked on the cover for Sergeant Peppers. There are amazing stories happening all around us every day. Now I need to focus and choose the right one.

 

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PS: Thank you to Scholastic for the images in this post and connecting me to Peter Sís.

2 Comments

  • Posted October 1, 2017 at 4:24 pm | Permalink

    Wow! I haven’t seen it yet but can hardly wait!

  • Posted October 7, 2017 at 12:56 am | Permalink

    What the what?! An interview with children’s book legend Peter Sis?! Amazing! Thanks for sharing this, Carter. Loved the book and now I have reason to love it even more!

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