In The Three Golden Keys, Tibet: Through the Red Box, and The Wall: Growing Up Behind the Iron Curtain, artist Peter Sís recalled his youth in Prague. He chronicled the lives of visionaries in Starry Messenger: Galileo Galilei and The Tree of Life: Charles Darwin, and he crafted lighthearted books featuring his children, including Madlenka, Ballerina!, Ship Ahoy!, and Fire Truck. (His daughter Madeleine is now 21 and an artist herself; his son Matej is 19.) In his new picture book, The Pilot and the Little Prince: The Life of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (FSG/Foster), Sís celebrates an adventurer whose philosophical work has been compared to his own. Peter Sís spoke to PW from his studio in New York City.

Hello, and thank you for speaking with us today.

You know, last time I did a phone interview with Publishers Weekly, 11 years ago, a little bit before there came a call that I thought was a credit card company. It was the MacArthur Foundation. I said, “I have a really important phone call coming, can you call later?” And they said, “Yes, it’s the MacArthur Foundation.” They told me this was a call that would change my life forever, and I said I didn’t want my life to be changed because I thought they were trying to sell me something. So, I was hoping somebody would call again today, but they didn’t.

Unfortunately, this is not the MacArthur Foundation. But we do want to hear your thoughts on Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. Did you know of him or read The Little Prince while growing up in Czechoslovakia?

When I was about 12 or 13, my father gave me The Little Prince. He was making sure that I knew it was a special book. I’d seen the name of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, but to me it seemed a very French name and I was not excited about him as a person. I just read the book, and it was a life-changing experience, because I was in this little country, which was sort of closed and dark, and all of a sudden there was this book which was telling me how wonderful life can be or will be.

I read it 20 years later when I came to America and was making this very difficult decision: should I go back or should I stay? The government of Prague was pressing me to return, and I was working on a film in Los Angeles, and I saw The Little Prince and it was like the book was fortifying me. When my father came to New York, we were walking in Central Park, and he told me Saint-Exupéry wrote The Little Prince in America. Then I read it to my children, another 20 years later, and it seemed a really sad book. So it is like a book which comes every 20 years to my life.

What attracted you to Saint-Exupéry as a subject?

Often people made some connection [between Saint-Exupéry and my work], like, “Oh, it’s a journey like in The Little Prince,” or “Oh, it’s a book which is telling me what to do with my life.” I started to do more reading about him. He lived in a time when airplanes and technology were evolving, and he was so amazing and energetic. He wrote while flying his planes, and he could be very entertaining and social; people would say, “Who is this man?” because he would win people over in such a short time with magic and card tricks.

I found also that when he was in New York, he could never learn English. I know how it is difficult to learn English, because I have been here so many years and it is not my mother tongue. So he was frustrated by not being able to communicate, because he was so social. In my mind, he just sat down and wrote this very unusual book, with all his emotions.

Like you, he made an abrupt transition to a new city and a new language, and he missed his old home.

He only spent two years in New York, but for me that was a big part [of his creativity], because how do you fit into a crazy place like New York, with people from so many different countries? It was so complicated with all the French refugees in New York and in America, and how many differences they had because of the politics and because of Vichy and because of de Gaulle.

He said something like, “Exile is never temporary” [in Stacy Schiff’s Saint-Exupéry: A Biography]. But I think he would always hope about going back home and for me also that was part of it, because I was always thinking about going back too. But when my parents were no more, it sort of changed. I found it very touching, during the Second World War, that he was flying with the Allies over his home and over his country, but he never set his foot in France again.

Your book’s cover pictures Saint-Exupéry and the Little Prince flying in a biplane, yet your art does not imitate the original book. Were you cautious not to copy his style?

That was always the issue. If I would use anything from The Little Prince, even some little quote, it’s all copyrighted in France. Like Walt Disney in this country, it’s a national treasure.

My motivation was not to say directly, “Here is the Little Prince,” but to make associations. Like, when he was a little boy he had golden hair and was called the Sun King. Or, when he dreams about going back home, he sees a star. I had one version of the cover where the pilot is standing with the Little Prince on the planet, and I decided I didn’t want to do that. Even my title was going to be “The Pilot and the Prince,” and the publisher was insisting on “Little Prince.” It means so much for so many people – I even found out there are all these people with tattoos of quotes from the book. I am afraid that people will think I re-illustrated The Little Prince, when really it was more a tribute to him as a dedicated pilot and a man who believed in the goodness of people.

How did you work with editor Frances Foster in developing this idea?

It was evolving for a long time, and Frances was with me all the way. I was working on the art, and we were still looking at how we could make some visual connection to The Little Prince, and then all of a sudden Frances had a stroke, and couldn’t speak and couldn’t walk. It still is so awful. I finished the book with Margaret Ferguson, and she was wonderful, but she’s a different person. We both came to the project thinking, What shall we do now that Frances is not able to [work with us]? It’s like when they change the director of a movie.

I will see Frances tomorrow [April 16], and I have a copy of the book now, so I will be showing it to her. But she cannot speak, so that makes it all so much more painful, really.

I always realize what she meant to me for 27 years. She’s such a noble and a gentle person. She was always so wonderful at looking at something and giving it time and directing me. And she’s also of that generation of editors that I miss more and more, of course. [The book imprint] still carries her name, and I’m very proud of it.

In The Pilot and the Little Prince, as in The Tree of Life, you use tiny emblems and references that must be teased out over multiple readings. Why do you favor this complex style?

Sometimes I think it’s because I’d like to write a novel, or to write a book with many words, but because I cannot really use English well enough, I’m using art to tell something. You can almost spin stories and sentences out of the contrast between the very simple text and the pictures with lots of details. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t work.

I tried to do very easy books for my son when he was little, like Fire Truck. But then the child moves beyond that moment, and the book becomes a thing of the past. Books like The Wall or Starry Messenger have more layers, and the Darwin book is so much Frances Foster’s. There is so much information, and I gave up on that book like, three times. Since she wasn’t with me until the very end of this one, I left out a big part of Saint-Exupéry’s life, which was that he was an inventor. He was very curious about life and thinking constantly, and I was looking at him more as this joyful giant who was flying and adventurous.

Saint-Exupéry went through so much personally and politically, and you could recount only a fraction of his experiences. Were there any stories you felt were best left out or unsubstantiated?

(The Pilot and the Little Prince) is loaded with information, but there was no way I could fit everything into a 47-page book. There are the conflicts between French people in New York, and the conflicts between Saint-Exupéry and the women in his life. He meets all these amazing women in New York, and was he just friends with them? People don’t know. I didn’t think it was that important to include because it gets confusing.

For me he was interesting because of all the connections he made. I met Heather Stern, who was a painter, at the end of her life, and she was friends with Saint-Exupéry when he was 24. She was the wife of Saul Steinberg. Then you realize his publisher was Gallimard and he knew Albert Camus. Things like that are incredible in a way.

When we think about New York in the 1930s and 1940s, it can seem like a much smaller world.

It was the kind of society where people would meet, on a certain level. In fact, he lived on Beekman Place, in the apartment of Wild Bill Donovan, who became the head of [the Office of] Strategic Services. And Donovan gave a job to Julia Child. So there’s a connection between Julia Child and Saint-Exupéry. It’s almost like Kevin Bacon stories, about degrees of separation.

There is even the whole thing about the son of President Roosevelt [Theodore Roosevelt, Jr.] who was the commander of the Allied Forces in North Africa. He was essential in letting Saint-Exupéry join the French Free Army, because he [Saint-Exupéry] was already so famous, and they wanted a person to be the face of the campaign. Never did they think he would be flying again, because he was 44. And he somehow used the connection to Roosevelt to talk them into letting him fly these sophisticated airplanes. When he vanishes, everyone says, How come he was flying? He wasn’t supposed to fly. Who gave him permission to fly?

How much of his charm depends on exactly that rebellious nature?

In the early days of aviation, when he got in the plane and flew wherever he wanted, he didn’t need permission – he just landed on the field. I think he had a big problem when things began to get more structured. Before the war, he flies from New York to Washington and doesn’t have a map and thinks he can just follow the train tracks. He was behaving very much as a free spirit.

You suggest that as the world changed, he could only change so much.

He starts with these absolutely primitive, simple planes, and for his last flight, the missions from Africa, he flies this Lightning, which is much closer to the complex planes today. He started with a piece of wood that didn’t even have brakes. So he went through the incredible evolution of the plane, yet he always looked at it as an instrument.

He says in his books that, like a farmer has a plow, he has a plane. He believes planes will connect people all over the world and will bring good things to people. He’s flying over South America, and thinks about all these little lights down on the earth, and how behind each light is a human being. He had that wonderful humanity, like Romain Rolland. Some people really believed the world would become a better place. He believed it too, he was idealistic, and the Second World War was a big blow.

At the time, the Germans were building these very fast and efficient airplanes. The Germans were building the airplanes just to get them up in the air and get them to Poland, Belgium, Holland, and France, as a big part of German domination at the beginning of the war. The planes were killing machines, really. Then I think, even when Exupéry flies for the French Air Force, in Flight to Arras [1942], he does the reconnaissance – he always does the observation, he’s not shooting his gun. That may be just his unit, and he’s a war pilot, but he’s a peaceful pilot, and he’s not shooting anybody or killing anybody. That goes with the sentiment of The Little Prince so well.

Saint-Exupéry led a romantic as well as a tragic life. How did you decide to approach war and death in this book for young readers?

For me, a very unusual picture – by my sort of scale or palette – is the picture of the Second World War where the German tanks attack France from Belgium. That’s a picture which is unusual for me because of the fire and blood and everything. I didn’t want to go into gory detail; I just wanted to show that it was a shock.

Exupéry said he could do his best thinking up in the air, when he was flying, and all of a sudden we have this contrast of the Second World War. In the end, [after he vanished on a 1944 mission], there was this argument that they found his plane and they found his bracelet, but in the picture I connect it with his dream of being on a bicycle which flies, his dream of flying in the blue. There were all these hints that he wanted to die because he was tired and hurting – not just physically because he was in so many crashes, but because he felt so much in pain because of what was happening in the war. So I was tiptoeing around that, it’s true.

It’s the format of children’s books too. When you have little children you want to tell them about joy and happiness and hope. And then comes the time you want to tell them there are tough moments. I admire people who can do that. I had the same problem with the Cold War [in The Wall] when I was trying to tell about life, but not showing people dying in prisons. Maybe sometimes it would be more forceful if I did that. So this is a good question, because I was trying to get out of it by showing a map over what was taking place, but I wasn’t showing all the innocent people who died.

It’s a conflict for me as an artist, or a person who wants to appear more poetic, to deal with those moments. I remember somebody told me when I did the first book [Rainbow Rhino], that the rhinoceros could die. And yet children emotionally get so shaken by that. It’s almost like the scene with Babar and his mother being shot. Somehow I don’t think I can do it.

Do you foresee making more books in the labor-intensive style of The Pilot and the Little Prince?

Now there’s always that commercial aspect lurking behind [the author/editor relationship]. You always think, Do I have time to play? Do I have time to experiment? Do I have to deliver because they expect me to deliver? I don’t want to judge them because it happened to everyone in publishing, and somehow we just have to find a new way.

At the same time, if I look out of the window and I see so many little kids, I still imagine the parents want them to read and to know and to find out about things. I’m wondering what will be the future and how much it will be of interest to people to spend time and look for the details. As a boy I always loved the books when I could find little things and make little connections, and looking at the new world I’m not sure how much patience people have. They seem to be in a hurry a lot.

The Pilot and the Little Prince by Peter Sís. FSG/Foster, $17.99 ISBN 978-0-374-38069-4