Peter Sís threads together strands of the real and the fictional in his newest picture book, Robinson (Scholastic Press), which had its roots in a childhood memory and his admiration for the intrepid hero of Daniel Defoe’s classic novel, Robinson Crusoe. In the book, after young Peter returns home from a costume party where friends mocked his Robinson Crusoe getup, he falls into a feverish sleep and sails to Crusoe’s remote island. Czech-born Sís, a Hans Christian Andersen Award winner and three-time Caldecott Honoree, spoke with PW about his two-tiered personal inspiration for the book.
What sparked the idea of creating a story fusing an incident from your childhood with the story of Robinson Crusoe?
I was looking at photographs from my childhood with my sister when I saw this silly-looking boy with a painted beard, and all the memories came back. I was about nine or 10, and there was a costume party at school, and my friends and I were going as pirates. But my mother, who was a great artist—and frustrated to be at home with two kids—suggested I go as my literary hero of that time, Robinson Crusoe. She made me an amazing costume using rugs, skins, and my sister’s leotard. She even made my shoes and bow. When she painted my face, I started to believe I really was a wild and dangerous adventurer!
But as soon as we got to school, I realized the kids were laughing at me. I became itchy and sweaty and very uncomfortable. I won first prize for best costume, which made my mother happy, but I was desperate to get home. I was running a fever and stayed in bed for days, and it was during that delirious time that I journeyed to Robinson Crusoe’s island of despair. When I revisited the memory as an adult, I realized that it was an opportunity to explore ideas about loneliness and friendship and independence in a picture book, all of which appealed to me.
Your family history has obviously inspired some of your earlier books as well—The Wall comes immediately to mind. Is it gratifying for you to reach back and revisit your past, and use true life to shape a fictional story?
I think all my books are about my family. It was gratifying to be able to teach my children about the Cold War through The Wall, though it’s scary how relevant the book feels today. To reach back into my past seems the best way to understand the present. These can be stories from the “old country” or coming to the “new world,” stories about being strong and determined. And for that, Robinson Crusoe was a great literary hero.
I grew up in a country and during a time where you had to keep your thoughts to yourself—but luckily, I had my books, and I discovered Robinson Crusoe. Whenever things did not go well in life, I did, and still do, imagine Robinson with his umbrella, walking the beaches and through the jungle on the island of despair, looking for hope. In my mind, I always see those wonderful old illustrations: the beautiful blues of the sky and the ocean, the luscious greens of the rainforest, the rich tropical colors of the plants. Colors of hope and promise.
What is it about Robinson’s story that has made it such a classic—and relatable to so many generations of readers?
I think Defoe’s story—one of the first novels ever written—has endured because it addresses everybody’s fear of being alone. The romantic idea of what it might feel like to be a castaway on a remote island has been alive since 1719, at least! And the fact that Defoe took inspiration for his novel from the true story of Alexander Selkirk, who in his time survived for four years marooned on an island, makes it even more compelling. I don’t know about other readers in the past 300 years, but I never cared for the part with the cannibals or his friend Friday. In my mind, I always see Robinson Crusoe exploring alone; that’s the part that resonates most for me.
Would you say that Robinson is a departure from your past picture books—do you feel as though you’ve ventured onto new thematic or visual turf in this book?
Robinson is a foundling of a book! I thought I had told my kids all the stories from my childhood until I found that photograph of myself in costume. For many years, while my kids were growing up, I borrowed stories from their lives and made them into books. Now that they are college age, I feel it’s time to mine more of my own stories. Robinson was a chance to revisit my childhood, my memories, my feelings. I had the freedom to use the colors of fantasy and discovery. And I focused on the emotion of each piece.
When little Peter leaves the costume party and goes home to bed, I tried to capture through color and composition the sadness of a time when I felt lost. He drifts into a fever sleep and finds himself on an island. There, I paint with the colors of a dream. The island is full of hope. Peter grows strong. He believes in himself again. So later, when we return to his bedroom and his friends come to visit, the room becomes a cozy place—a safe place. It is home. I painted this picture many times and experimented with lots of colors in order to capture the deep feelings I hold inside about home. In a way, the book is about experimenting, growing up, facing hardship, and finding home inside yourself.
Robinson by Peter Sís. Scholastic Press, $17.99 Sept. 26 ISBN 978-0-545-73166-9