February 2, 2021

Let's Talk Illustrators #166: Peter Sís

I'm so proud to kick off a new year of interviews with three-time Caldecott honoree and Sibert winner Peter Sís about his newest book Nicky & Vera: A Quiet Hero of the Holocaust and the Children He Rescued. This is a story close to my own heart, and it was an honor to talk to Peter about what the story means to him. I hope you enjoy.

About the book:
In 1938, twenty-nine-year-old Nicholas Winton saved the lives of almost 700 children trapped in Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia--a story he never told and that remained unknown until an unforgettable TV appearance in the 1980s reunited him with some of the children he saved.

Czech-American artist, MacArthur Fellow, and Andersen Award winner Peter Sís dramatizes Winton's story in this distinctive and deeply personal picture book. He intertwines Nicky's efforts with the story of one of the children he saved--a young girl named Vera, whose family enlisted Nicky's aid when the Germans occupied their country. As the war passes and Vera grows up, she must find balance in her dual identities--one her birthright, the other her choice.

Let's talk Peter Sís!

LTPB: I remember so distinctly seeing the video you mention at the end of Nicky & Vera for the first time. As a Jewish-American (as a human, really) I was brought to tears, and I think about it often. Can you talk about the first time you became aware of this story and how long you’ve been waiting to create this book?

PS: I remember the story from forever. In Prague during my childhood there were stories about parents putting their children on the train so they would escape to England, saving them from death in the Nazi camps. But the story did not make sense to me until the man, Nicholas Winton, who was the mastermind of the rescue of some 669 children, was revealed and pushed into the lime light in 1988. The story was so amazing—a brave young man saves hundreds of kids from the country he was visiting on his ski vacation, and then doesn’t tell anybody about it for the next fifty years. It would seem to be an impossible book project! That is, until my son and I, visiting Prague, stumbled on the 100th birthday party of Nicholas Winton. We discussed, my son and I, what it means to be a hero. Many years later I discovered a book by Vera Gissing called The Pearls of Childhood. Then it all started to become an idea in my head to interweave their stories. It was complicated, but I got help from my wife Terry and my editor Simon Boughton.

LTPB: Telling stories about the Holocaust is not an easy feat. What strides do you take to make topics like this one accessible to young children? What challenges did you encounter with Nicky & Vera?

PS: You are right. The more closely I looked into the source material, the more I was pulled into the abyss of human history—the Holocaust. How can you explain it to anybody? When can you begin to talk about it with a small child? I did a lot of reading. I did not know which way to continue until my wife and editor came to help. Nicholas Winton was aware of the danger of world war but couldn’t even start to imagine what was to come. And Vera only found out about extermination camps from a BBC broadcast in 1943. The impact of her tragedy fully hit her only when she returned to her family house and found everybody gone. How do you paint pain? I was trying to express it through just a few words, and pictures which enforce them.

LTPB: As a prolific (to say the least) creator, how has your illustration technique changed over the course of your career so far? What is your process for approaching each new project with a new creative energy and fresh ideas?

PS: In certain books, I test out new ideas and illustration techniques. But I also have safe techniques I can fall back on when I need to. Such is the style I chose for the pictures of the life of Nicholas Winton, probably because he was a private, reserved man, and the facts about his life were rock solid. The parts of the book dedicated to Little Vera were more of an experimentation. The pictures are supposed to be like a diary of a little girl.

But trying to draw as a little child would does not work. Little children are great artists, and it shows when one tries to pretend to be a child. Instead, I came up with something which I hope reflects her. I got incredible help from the designer of the book, Ann Bobco, who unified the pages with the brown borders and unique typography. It is hard to approach each new project with new creative energy and fresh ideas. Sometimes I was just rocking, especially when our kids were little, and gave me ideas and meaning. I was then executing book after book almost too easily. Nicky & Vera had to overcome lots of obstacles, including the pandemic. Perhaps it made it stronger and more solid.

LTPB: Is pen and ink your preferred medium? Can you talk a little bit about your process?

PS: My solid style-which is made of hundreds of little dots, is pen and ink and lots of patience on watercolor paper with indigo washes. Yellow watercolor is added for attention spots. This is my preferred medium at the moment. Vera’s part of the book was adventurous. I used brown/beige paper which did not take kindly to watercolor, and even when stretched on a board was hard to control. In the end I had to reason with myself that this is a little girl’s story, and it is important to be sincere when telling the story. The picture did not need to be perfect. The process of making art used to change from book to book. I used to illustrate a number of books by other authors. Now I tend to think more about how to combine the story, words, and pictures in the most effective way. I also try to hold on to my first pristine idea about a subject I want to tackle, trying not to lose that idea in too much technique and detail.

LTPB: What are you working on now?

PS: I am thinking about the story of a little girl who emigrated from Europe to America (middle Europe to middle America) in the 19th century. She brings her favorite fairy tales from the old world with her, and they help her.

LTPB: If you got the chance to write your own picture book autobiography, who (dead or alive!) would you want to illustrate it, and why?

PS: How did you know that I want to write my own biography? It is about how Maurice Sendak called me collect in Hollywood, where I was stranded after the animation project that first brought me to America went nowhere. Sendak told me that if I wanted to do children’s books I would have to get to New York. I drove across America, thinking about my life and the things I saw and the people I met. It should be illustrated by all my friends—Ed Young, Lizbeth Zwerger, Francois Place, Lane Smith, Henrick Drescher, Jon Muth, Mo Willems, Barbara McClintock, Jerry Pinckney, Frantisek Skala, Petr Nikl, Roger Mello, and everyone.

A big thank you to Peter for talking to me about Nicky & Vera: A Quiet Hero of the Holocaust and the Children He Rescued, which published last month from Norton Young Readers.

Special thanks to Peter and Norton Young Readers for use of these images!

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  1. Ahoj Peter and Mel! I haven't been purchasing many books since the start of the pandemic (because I'm living in a bubble), but ordered this one right away when I found out about it. Such a powerful and moving story that hit home a beautiful reminder of what a picture book can be. It's a nice privilege to sit in the room here and tune into to your conversation about the journey to make the book. Thank you!

    1. This was absolutely one of the most wonderful interviews I have had the privilege of conducting -- I'm so glad it meant so much to you, Tim!