The Books of Peter Sís


I have been a little under the weather the last few weeks so Susan has been kind enough to share an extra book installment with all of us. Thanks Susan!

Author and illustrator Peter Sís belongs to the Neil Gaiman school of children’s literature – Sís believes a child’s book can be a little dark and scary. Or, depending on which one of his books you pick up, very dark and scary.

Sís’ books have won numerous awards, including the Newberry, the Caldecott, and the New York Times Book Review Best Illustrated Book of the Year. Sís himself won a Macarthur Fellowship in 2003.

Sís’ range is incredible. He’s written books for a whole spectrum of ages. Sís’ works for very small children are happy, simple books that help kids count and learn their colors. His books for slightly older children let a little darkness creep in — pretend dinosaurs, for example, inspire real terror. When I reached his books for older children, I began to wonder where the line should be drawn between the kids’ and adults’ section of the bookstore. Sís’ most recent book, The Wall: Growing Up Behind the Iron Curtain, is an illustrated account of Sís’ youth in Prague and the effect of Communist repression on a child. Even though the book won a Caldecott, it felt more in line with adult graphic novels such as Maus and Persepolis.

Darkness aside, I have nothing but admiration for Sís’ cartoons. You can tell his visual “voice” instantly – his cartoons are both incredibly complex and incredibly simple. His books for young children are spare line drawings with splashes of color. As his audience gets older, Sís’ drawings don’t change so much as get filled in – by delicate cross-hatchings that indicate shadows and patterns, by scenes covered in subtle colors, and by intricate details that fill every page to bursting.

Even if you don’t read Sís’ darker books to your kids, I’d highly recommend reading them yourself.

Trucks Trucks Trucks, written and illustrated by Peter Sís. When Matt is told to pick up his trucks, they get bigger and bigger on every page, until he’s riding inside them like a construction worker. When Matt returns to the real world, he and his mother go outside and see a real construction site. While the rest of the world is black and white, the trucks are a cheerful yellow. My son insists on sleeping with this book.

Madlenka Soccer Star, written and illustrated by Peter Sís. Sís has written three books about little blonde-haired Madlenka, who lives on a city block and has adventures with her neighbors. This book has many of the same elements as the earlier ones, such as wonderful mini-maps that zoom in on Madlenka from the planet to the city to her block. But Madlenka, Soccer Star is the lightest and most accessible of the series. Madlenka dribbles her soccer ball around the block, playing with imaginary friends until her real friends meet her in the courtyard for a game. The children are multi-ethnic, and Sís draws a comparison between their clothes and the flags of all the countries who love soccer.

Komodo!, written and illustrated by Peter Sís. This is a great first step for future fans of science fiction and adventure stories. A little boy loves dragons so much that he fills his room with dragon decorations. When his parents take him to the island of Komodo, he imagines exactly how he’ll see the real Komodo dragon. But the experience doesn’t live up to his expectations. So he wanders off into the jungle, only to finally meet his dragon. Just as it’s not clear whether the boy imagined the encounter, the illustrations merge fantasy and reality as well, with a jungle filled with mysterious plants that look just like dragons.

Susan Fry is a writer and mother in the San Francisco Bay Area. She’s written for Stanford Magazine, salon, the San Jose Mercury News, and many other publications.

Check out the complete collection of children’s book reviews by Susan Fry.

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