AMHERST -- With his layered and complicated picture books, children's writer/illustrator Peter Sis has denied the editorial doomsayers, who originally thought his books were too "cerebral" for Americans.
Sis will give a lecture tomorrow beginning at 1:30 at the Eric Carle Museum.
Sis is a multiple-award winner for books like The "Tree of Life: Charles Darwin," "Starry Messenger: Galileo Galilei" and "Komodo," as well as a 2003 MacArthur Fellow.
He was born in Brno, Czechoslovakia, and sees his childhood as the integral part of what has made his children's books stand out as different from the others. A life behind the Iron Curtain in Prague is a huge differentiation in experience. This wasn't a factor when he started out illustrating other people's stories, but once he began writing his own books, he sought commonalties in his experience and an American child's.
"Getting a chance to do my own stories, I was reaching, all of a sudden, into my childhood," he said. "I didn't have a childhood in America, so I couldn't deal with baseball or anything children grew up with here, so I was lucky that some of things did get accepted, but it wasn't really rational thinking, ‘this is the way I will go,' I was just looking for subjects that I thought would somehow be universal and which would translate both in my childhood and in my new country."
Sis says that his books functioned as "diaries from the new world," documenting many corners of American life through the perspective of someone who was a stranger within that world.
"I did books about strange animals who lived alone, which was more me trying to find my place in the society," said Sis. "And also about dreams. When you have a dream it can be fulfilled."
Sis admits that his approach to storytelling -- described by some as "cerebral" -- has been a strength as well as a deficit, especially in the face of editors who weren't sure that his sensibility was right for kids.
"I started to shop my own ideas, and very often I would be told that it's too cerebral and it's not American and lots of people told me to go back to Belgium," he said. "Then the same thing started to happen in the books. They said your ideas are way too serious, too cerebral."
The un-American quality of Sis' work became a reason for some editors to attempt micro-managing, to the point where they were directing him to draw bigger eyes on faces, so his characters didn't look as foreign. Eventually, Sis was able to adapt ordinary American aspects to his stories in a more natural way.
"I think even today I do not feel like I can tell the story in the nice traditional American way," Sis said, "but then I was very blessed because I met my wife and we had two kids and, for 10 or 12 years, I would just be observing my American kids and documenting their life."
As an outsider -- an immigrant whose creative approach was apparently different from others that the editors and art directors were dealing with -- Sis embraced the stories of other people who did not fit in, but who through their difference changed the world.
"I was getting more and more into my own obsessions with people who somehow dared to change the way that everyone was thinking," said Sis. "There was that whole sentiment of being an immigrant, leaving one place and going to another place, so I was looking for these people, if it was Columbus or Galileo or Darwin, which were different from the whole group or crowd of people, individuals who had enough courage to say things differently or do things differently. I thought it was a good example for the kids, how they have to think outside of the box, but also how it can get difficult to be different from everybody else."
"I was celebrating what I admired in America, that people are much more free to say what they want to say. But I also have to say that in the beginning, I had seen all of America as being very progressive, and it took me a long time to find out that it doesn't have to always be like that, so I learned my lesson. I'm still learning my lesson, which is ridiculous, because, like with the accent, after 30 years it doesn't go away and you can still find things that you had no idea are happening."
Sis got his start in children's books in the mid-1980s, thanks to a misunderstanding that won him the support of Maurice Sendak. He was in the country to work on an animated project that fell through. He stayed to work on a Bob Dylan project for MTV that didn't work out like he planned.
"I was coming from the Communist country, so difficult to explain to people here that I was supposed to come back at a certain time, otherwise I would be in trouble," said Sis. "I was stranded in Los Angeles because I was afraid to go, as I thought I would have troubles because I was coming late."
The head of an art gallery that had seen Sis' illustration work took the liberty of sending samples to Maurice Sendak without asking Sis first.
"He called me in Los Angeles and said, ‘So you want to be in children's books,' because he thought I sent the pictures because I wanted to be in children's books," Sis said. "He called the number he had for me, and I was completely shocked because I didn't quite know who Maurice Sendak was. I knew he was a well-known children's book author, but I didn't understand anything in America. I still don't, but at that time, I didn't understand what are the publishers, and I didn't understand that I'm in Los Angeles, which is different from other parts of America.
"I remember he said, ‘What are you doing in the worst place in America?' and I said ‘I don't know any other place in America.' He was assuming I wrote to him -- I didn't -- and that I wanted to do children's books. And of course, I was broke, so I said, ‘Sure I want to make children's books.' He said, ‘Oh, there's no more children's books, it's all about the money, no more editors, but there are like three people left in children's publishing and I'll introduce you to these three people, but you have to move to the East Coast.' "
Sendak was true to his word and became a mentor for Sis. The relationship drifted over the years as Sendak became more negative about the world.
"He was always very philosophical, very truthful, but also very down," said Sis. "And I started to understand him. He was down on politics and human relationships. He was a very dark and grouchy man, but I can only see now the exceptional artist.
"He didn't have to help me at all, and he was always there wondering why I want to do it, would I want to do it, does it have a meaning and he was very respectful about some of my books. He was a wonderful mentor, he was one of the wonderful mentors in my life who made my life what it is."
Sis tries to help out young creators the same way Sendak helped him, although he says the publishing scene has certainly changed since he got his start, and understands that the students he guides are dealing with the publishing world that is exactly the one that Sendak predicted.
"All those houses that I used to know 25 years ago, now it's down to three big corporations, which are merging and merging. It used to be seven different publishing houses, which had their own identity. In that sense it's very difficult. Illustrators will be dealing with basically three art directors, who will have to decide if this fits the mainstream market.
"Maybe it's because I've been around the block too long. Could be that when we get older, we get more skeptical. Maybe there will be some other new ways how to do it, but I don't know at the moment. I'm in this situation where I feel a lot like Maurice Sendak, that there is no publishing left, there are only three editors."
Despite that, Sis' outlook remains upbeat, and in his own work continues to plan to challenge himself and confound those who think they have his work pegged.
"I now feel like I should try once again to do very simple, very colorful, very playful books for little kids," he said. "I would like to see if I can do it without words, just because through the years I became maybe too serious and somehow it's expected of me by people."
Peter Sis can be found online at petersis.com.