Peter Sís, two-time Caldecott Honor artist (for Starry Messenger: Galileo Galilei and Tibet: Through the Red Box) draws from his own childhood in his latest book, The Wall: Growing Up Behind the Iron Curtain. Due from Farrar, Straus & Giroux's Frances Foster imprint with a 75,000-copy first printing, this picture book recreates Sís's experience as a youngster living in Russian-occupied Czechoslovakia during the Cold War, when the Communist government controlled virtually every aspect of life, including artistic expression. The author spoke with Bookshelf about creating his graphic memoir.
In The Wall, you introduce a boy who takes solace in drawing. Do you remember, during those dark times, doing the same?
Yes. Art really got me, and many others, through the darkest times. It was a lifeline, even the "compulsory" art we were made to create at school. And it wasn't just drawing and painting for me, but also music and filmmaking. The book reduces it to a fairly simple refrain—"But he had to draw. Sharing the dreams gave him hope"—but it was much more complex and fragmented than that.
Did you rely mostly on memory in recreating your boyhood experiences?
I was surprised to learn that my mother had kept many of my drawings, diaries and books I read as a child. I was absolutely stunned to see my old drawings, and looking at them I tried to remember who I was in that situation, who I was when I drew those pictures. Sometimes it was hard to remember, but seeing my old art helped it come back.
And what was it like rediscovering some of your boyhood books?
It was interesting to see them again. I know some people recall growing up with The Little Prince, but some of the books I read as a child were awful. It was hard to get books at all, and many that we could get were of dubious quality. But still they would speak to me and I knew it was special to have any books at all. Looking at them again they preserved that moment in time for me, the same way as songs from the 1960s do. They help me to recall so many emotions, and so much upheaval.
Was returning to the past to create The Wall a difficult experience?
When I lived in a totalitarian country as a brainwashed and controlled child, I did not see how bad it really was. As a child I had no access to TV or other media and knew very little about what was going on elsewhere. So yes, I would say that looking back was very emotional for me, and sometimes quite painful.
Did you have trouble deciding what memories and experiences to include in the book and which to leave out?
Oh yes. The book went through so many changes—I'd say three or four versions. I was guided by my editor, Frances Foster, who told me that I had to cut many things out, since much was incomprehensible. It was hard to drop things and I spent months and months doing it. Obviously this book is the closest one to my life I've ever written and I was trying to be entirely sincere. In the first version I was trying to give specifics to capture the feeling of the time and to show what it was like to grow up in such a restricted society. What it was like, for example, to stand in line to ask for permission to stand in another line to ask for permission to acquire a visa. Lots of these things make no sense to those who were born free.
Since you've lived in the U.S. since 1984, your own children were obviously born free. Was it important for you to share your very different childhood with them?
Watching them growing up free definitely made me think about my own childhood. This book is a cautionary tale about the most important thing—freedom. My children have been an inspiration for all my books, and I have been quick to tell them about all the wonderful things in life. Now they are 12 and 14, and I have to tell them about things that aren't wonderful as well, that the world is not idyllic and life is more than flowers and butterflies. And I want to tell them about my life in Prague and where I am coming from when I talk about freedom, but I cannot explain it. They have no idea what I am talking about. Kids in America and in Europe have little appreciation of the significance of the Berlin Wall and what it meant to the people who lived behind it. So I had to draw it.
And do you feel that they appreciate the difference between their lives and the life of the boy in The Wall?
I am not sure. I feel as though my life in Prague was almost like living in the 19th century and here my children are growing up in the 21st century. In a way I feel as though I'm caught between two worlds. I first had pizza at the age of 20 and my kids can eat it three times a day if they like. I hope that they will talk to me about the book and its message. But I have never wanted to force my books on them, to hand them a book and tell them they must read it before bed. But I do hope the message will sink in eventually.
Do you think you will return to your childhood in another book?
No. I've told my story in my voice and I have put it to rest. Life is too short to return again, though I might revisit my past indirectly, perhaps while looking at other injustices in the world. For now, though, I feel as though I have made my point.