“I still dream about doing something simple, very simple and universal” – PETR SÍS

“Petr Sís? Who is he?” Even Czechs pose this question. How is it possible that man who got the New York Times The best-illustrated book award 8 times and many others is almost unknown here?

The Tree of Life: Charles Darwin (2003) 

Mainly, it’s because Petr Sís has lived in the USA since 1984. He emigrated there thanks the opportunity to make an animated video clip for the Olympic Games in 1984 that took place in Los Angeles. Fortunately, he got the permission from the czechoslovak communist government to leave the country for few weeks. In these times, it was nearly impossible to go abroad if you lived behind the ”iron curtain”. 

Prague in 1968

The Wall: Growing Up Behind the Iron Curtain – one of the best books by Petr Sís, published in 2007. He was trying to explain his children how the dictatorship, lack of freedom and totality worked (not only) in Czechoslovakia by using his original illustrations. 

I always think like I was born in the country where everybody ate apples. Then I ended up in the country where everybody eats bananas. So now, I eat bananas so long, I’m just remembering the apples.

Before he became an illustrator and writer of books for children, he had worked as a musician. He and some his friends created their own big-beat band in late 60s. Furthermore, he tried to work for press, so he had opportunities to do interviews with the biggest stars of czechoslovak pop music.

Since he started living in America, he has created many books for children (which are not only aimed at infants because the adult reader can always discover some hidden information), including masterpieces like The Tree of Life: Charles Darwin (2003), The Wall: Growing Up Behind the Iron Curtain (2007), The Conference of the Birds (2011) or Starry Messenger: Galileo Galilei (1996).

The Tree of Life: Charles Darwin (2003)

People think children’s books are about teddy bears and little flowers. I realize people sometimes don’t know what to do with my books because they say, ‘Is it a children’s book, and what age group?’

According to the list of Petr Sís’ creations, I should show you some his ”street-art” – E.G. his paintings in the New York subway or a wall in Harlem decorated by his artwork.

I know there are some good American police. But I grew up in a country where we were afraid of the police.

The name of this czech artist is also known in the world of animated film. Petr Sís was able to  study at the Royal College of Art in the UK. There he got his first professional experience with illustrating books and animating films. A few years later he won the Golden bear award in Berlin, consequently he had the gate of the iron curtain opened…

I had a very comfortable life, but there were people who spent their life in prison, whose families were destroyed.

During his career, he met and became a friend of many interesting people like Miloš Forman (Director of movie Amadeus – 8 Oscars in 1985) and the 1st Czech president, revolutionary and famous writer Václav Havel.

Václav Havel as a symbol of the Velvet revolution and freedom in Czechoslovakia was presented by Petr Sís in many ways. For example as a hoopoe in the book The Conference of the Birds (2011). Hoopoe is the character who looks for the leader who will rule all birds and suddenly he realizes that the real bird leader is himself.

The birds never needed passports… We always thought, the birds can go wherever they want, and we couldn’t, really. The birds were very much the symbol of… free movement for me.

Except for all his illustrations and street art, Sís is associated with the classic art as well, concretely with the tapestries – one is dedicated to Václav Havel and another to Seamus Heaney, irish poet, writer and a holder of Nobel prize.

Václav Havel by Petr Sís

I trust the pictures to tell what I want to say.

In my personal opinion, Petr Sís belongs to a rare sort of people who share their attitude to the freedom with people around the world. Even you may reveal the secrets of freedom even if, in your life, it is a certainty. Discover that unique feeling of liberty by reading one of his books. Who knows what your country will look like in upcoming 40 years?

The Tree of Life: Charles Darwin (2003)


I grew up in society when lots of things were hidden, and they were not hidden just one way, but it was very complicated.

Awards

  • The New York Times The best illustrated book Award (8x)
  • Magnesia Litera (2x)
  • Artis Bohemiae Amicis Medal 
  • MacArthur Prize
  • Caldecott Medal (3x)
  • Sibert Medal
  • Golden Bear Award for Best Short Film
  • Hans Christian Andersen Award
The Tree of Life: Charles Darwin (2003)

When I do my own books, I take it as more of my own confessional, but when I illustrate for other people, it is intriguing because I feel like I shouldn’t be stepping too much into the limelight. It’s like playing the piano while someone else is singing.

Vojta

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