A gifted artist recalls the days when freedom was as elusive as a yellow submarine in picture book that won the American Library Association’s Robert F. Sibert Medal for the most distinguished “information book” of 2007 today
The Wall: Growing Up Behind the Iron Curtain. By Peter Sís. Farrar, Straus and Giroux/Frances Foster Books, 56 pp., $18. Ages 8 and up.
By Janice Harayda
Peter Sís is a rarity – an artist who smartens up picture books when others dumb them down. He grew up in Czechoslovakia and seems to lack the usual Americans preconceptions about what children’s books “need” to contain. Perhaps partly for this reason, he does highly original work that has won him a MacArthur grant and many others.
A case in point is this memoir of his childhood behind the Iron Curtain, which today won the Robert F. Sibert Medal for the most distinguished “information book” of 2007 and a Caldecott Honor, both from the American Library Association www.ala.org. In The Wall Sís finds the midpoint between picture books and graphic novels by telling his story partly through panels similar to comic strips. This enables him to fit a remarkable amount of information into 56 pages.
Sís uses captioned drawings of himself to depict experiences such as going to Communist schools: “Children are encouraged to report on their families and fellow students. Parents learn to keep their opinions to themselves.” Because many American children would lack a context for such lines, he adds background in creative ways – for example, by using lines of explanatory text as frames for drawings. He enriches all of it through a wealth of visual details. including an image of a yellow submarine to show the joy that erupted when the Beatles visited Prague.
As in some of his earlier work, Sís shows that oppressed people long for freedom even when they are better off than many of their peers. Sís yearned for the artistic freedom stifled when under Communism. He says on his last page: “As long as he can remember, he will continue to draw.”
Best line/picture: A full-page picture of a maze suggests how Czechs changed street signs an effort to thwart the Soviet invasion in 1968, one of many memorable images.
Worst line/picture: Sís includes excerpts from what he calls “My Journals” from 1954–1977 would have benefited from a bit more explanation. Diaries might have been considered subversive if discovered by the Communist authorities. Did he really keep these “journals” or were they created after the fact?
Futhermore: Sís came to the U.S. in the 1980s and lives near New York City.