Saturday, September 20, 2008

Peter Sis in Copenhagen@IBBY 2008

 Orbis Pictus: Drawn Into the World

Dedicated to Jan Amos Komensky (Comenius)  1592-1670

It is too ambitious to compare myself to this great thinker and educator, but I cannot help but be proud that he is considered the author of the first ever illustrated picture book, which was published 350 years ago.  Like me, he was born in Moravia (now part of the Czech Republic) in the middle of a conflict which eventually led him into exile, yet he believed in a better world through learning, education and books….

So forgive me if I am trying to find connections between this great man and my work.  There are not that many Moravians in the world of picture books, after all. 

As a child you have no control over where you are born.  But even though you don’t realize it- you are only a baby- you are born into history, into a story.  I was born in the middle of the century, in the middle of Europe.  I was also born just when the communists took over Czechoslovakia, but I did not know because I was a happy little boy surrounded by a loving family in the dark city of Prague.  Then our family history unexpectedly collided with that of a faraway part of the world, changing my life forever.  My father, a young filmmaker, was drafted into the army and sent to Communist China to teach documentary filmmaking.  He told my mother he would be back for Christmas (which he was, but quite a few years later…).  China was building a road through the Himalayas to Tibet.  It would be the highest road in the world.  My father and his Chinese students were in the middle of making a film about the building of the road when a huge piece of the mountain broke off, the road was blocked and the crew were stranded and lost.  Through his wanderings, my father ended up meeting the then 19 year old Dalai Lama.  I wrote a book about his adventures called “Tibet Through the Red Box” to celebrate the magic and mystery of Tibet which became a part of our family forever.   But already as a child I drew the stories I heard from my father.  Maybe it was a way of counterbalancing the communist indoctrination I got at school. 

I drew and drew.  The more repressive the outside world became, the more freedom I found in drawing, in creating a world for myself.  I decorated the whole house we were living in from top to bottom, the light switches, the door of the fridge, the chairs.  I drew at school, through all my classes, even math and physics  (so don’t ask me about electricity, or how to count).   My art highschool was a wonderful time of my life.  Life was relatively freer than it had been, with the advent of the Beatles, the summer of love, and The Prague Spring.  What wonderful synergy.  Then the soviet tanks rolled in to Prague, and everything crashed down.  It is hard to see what is happening as it happens in history.  You go with the flow, and only see things clearly many years later. 

I was trying to tell my stories.  It was hard under the increasingly oppressive regime.  Drawing did not work.  Painting was censored.  Animated film seemed the best way to go.  I could tell stories in motion!  A seven-minute animated film took me a whole year to make.  I made several, and they started garnering prizes in film festivals.  This opened the world beyond the Iron curtain for me. 

After winning the Golden Bear award in West Berlin I became an export article for the National Organization of Czech Film.  Travel to Switzerland, London, Los Angeles.  I left for Hollywood, ostensibly for just a few months, to make a film celebrating the brotherhood of man, the 1984 Olympic Games.  I had almost finished the film when the Soviet Union and the East Block countries decided to pull out.  I was called back home.  But I wanted to finish my film.  And I did.  But by then I was afraid to go back.  I had overstayed my travel permit.  Hard to explain to young people today.  I decided then and there that I would become extremely successful so that when I did go home I could say that I did it all for my country. 

I naively thought that I could spin stories out of my childhood adventures, turn them into books and films.  Me who didn’t grow up with pizza or baseball!  It was hard going.  Just when I thought I couldn’t make it, I got a push from Maurice Sendak.  Thank you!

Publishers found my stories awfully exotic.  I developed a special pen and ink drawing technique which involved shadings made from hundreds of thousands of little dots.  It didn’t leave any time for a social life.  I was given other people’s books to illustrate, and was told by the editors that the faces I drew were too European, that I needed to change all the details.  Those were hard years.  I was without a country or a passport. But then more and more I was encouraged to do books of my own.  The subjects paralleled my own discoveries of the new world I was in- people exploring streets, elevators, beaches.  Then books about explorers- Columbus, Welzl.  Exotic places like the island of Komodo.  Places I wanted to go but for now could just draw.

I got married and had two children.  As soon as they were born I started to make stories for them.  I could not possibly tell stories in a language which was not quite my own, with no references to my own childhood.  So I told my stories mainly in pictures.  And tried to talk about people who could make us see things in a different way, like Galileo or Darwin. 

The books led to new ventures.  More film, posters, large scale mosaics in public places.  My children are growing up.  What will they remember?  I imagine myself as a storyteller traveling on the old silk route, spinning tales by the fire.  Tales of different cultures I have seen and imagined.  And tales now too of my childhood for my children to tell to others.