Talking with Peter Sís

Book Links July 2008 (vol. 17, no. 6)

By Cyndi Giorgis and Nancy J. Johnson

Upper elementary school through high school

The author of
The Wall talks about the challenges of creating his autobiographical picture book.

It started with one question: “Are you a settler, Dad?” Peter Sís’ response to his children became
The Wall: Growing Up behind the Iron Curtain, an autobiographical picture book blending spare narrative, introductory and closing notes, journal entries, childhood drawings, photographs, and pen-and-ink illustrations. His efforts have earned him the 2008 Robert F. Sibert Informational Book Medal and a Caldecott Honor Book citation. Recently, we sat down with Sís and talked about
The Wall and the story behind its creation.

The Wall is a powerful story of growing up in Czechoslovakia under Soviet rule. We know that your own children were the intended audience, but did you also envision this book as one for older readers?

SÍS: For a year my editor, Frances Foster, and I talked about the direction the book might take. There were a lot of stop-and-go moments when I didn’t know how to move on. At one point someone asked me why anybody would want to buy a book like this because it’s not about anything pleasant. That’s when I tried to put in some humor to take away from it being serious, but all my stupid jokes were edited out. Frances made the right decisions. She gave it a certain seriousness, which now seems to be appreciated. It’s interesting that in France the publisher who bought rights to the book reduced the size because they saw it for older kids. I would have fought it, but I know that France has a tradition of graphic novels.

CG & NJJ: As a child how did you negotiate between the creative license you were given at home and the restricted rules of not being able to draw and paint what you wanted at school?

SÍS: School was terrible. School was more about how not to do it. People were teaching art, but they weren’t interested in art. At that time there were lots of teachers who were mostly into fulfilling the political agenda.

CG & NJJ: Did you attend art class when you were young?

SÍS: There was art class one hour a week, and my parents supported my drawing at home. But then at age 15 or 16, I had a teacher who was ­really bad. This was in the 1960s when there was a combination of everything happening—we started to grow long hair and use psychedelic colors, but he just wouldn’t have it. He said I had no talent. And he was, I think, almost purposely destroying me. I was completely devastated. After I dragged myself home, my father got in the car and drove to the school, where he was behind those doors for half the day. After that, they left me alone.

CG & NJJ: Was it risky for your father to stand up for you?

SÍS: No, because he was a film director, he was loud, and he was bigger. He looked like Orson Welles. If he had not stood up for me I wouldn’t have had a chance simply because this one grown-up idiot told me that I didn’t have talent. It was a good lesson for me.

CG & NJJ: Are the journal entries that are interspersed in
The Wall from your own childhood journals?

SÍS: They are more like memories from my childhood drawings. Frances decided that these sort of entries would make the book much more serious. They became the replacement for an earlier draft where I included humorous car trip illustrations running along the bottom of the pages showing a family traveling with the father (I’m the father), the wife, and the kids in the backseat. The kids are playing with a Game Boy, and the father becomes obsessed with trying to explain his past to his children, and his family couldn’t care less. They are sort of falling asleep, and the kids keep saying, “Oh, Dad.” I was also fighting with telling the story in the third person, saying, “He, he, he…” but it was really about “me, me, me.” The journal-like entries are all my stories as a child.

CG & NJJ: Why did you initially hesitate using a first-person voice to tell the story?

SÍS: It’s the whole question of guilt. That’s what I’m still dealing with today. If I go back to Prague now, they talk like they were all fighting. The president of the Czech Republic now says that the real heroes are the people who went through it every day, who didn’t really do anything. It’s not the ones who were in prison and who were really making waves, but people who were there every day for their children. They were sort of conformists. The people who were conformists wore that whole system down. So, that was my voice when I exhibited the brainwashing in the beginning, because I wanted to show how awful it was. I have discussions with people who ask, “Did you believe everything?” And I tell them, “Maybe I didn’t, but I wanted to show how easy it is to take any child and convince him that this is how it is.”

CG & NJJ: Did you think you were taking a risk in showing people what it was like?

SÍS: I thought, okay, I’m going to take this chance because I am educating people. But then you realize that the people you want to educate don’t want to have it. They just ignore it. And there goes my theory with
The Wall too—that it will be taken as one-sided. Some people will say, “This is how America is so great, and everything was so bad there in Czechoslovakia.” There’s lots of irony in that also, because the book is about the illusion of the place called America. I was trying to explain all the things I think are dangerous and can happen anyplace, anytime. Like with my own kids, they wouldn’t even see it coming, and all of a sudden it would be here. What happens depends on the character of people. Would they fight back, or would they break? Would they play along? I still think that Americans wouldn’t take it and that they would fight, but you don’t really know until it happens. That’s the problem.

CG & NJJ: Can you ever trust a government again?

SÍS: I really can’t. I have a real distaste for any big group of people cheering for something. I feel like I want to walk away from every confrontation like that. Maybe there are moments in life when you have to take a stand. I know it’s hard for me even if I really believe in it, just because of how I grew up. If someone asked me to sign a petition against the president I would think maybe that’s going to mean trouble for my family. This feels really scary because somebody in America told me that the government can check on the e-mails or phone calls, and that brings back all these fears. I think, yeah, this is a free society, but . . . In the long run, I think it is important to think this way.

CG & NJJ: In the March 1965 journal entry in
The Wall, you write about seeing a “black man with a smiley face” who you realize later is Louis Armstrong. What was that like when performers were allowed into your country after censorship was lifted?

SÍS: My father was making films with Louis Armstrong and I met his wife and him. We thought Armstrong must live in some castle, because he was in a dinner jacket with a bowtie. I remember how surprised I was to find out that he lived in Queens and how hard it was for musicians to earn just 60 dollars a night. We thought he must be bigger, because he was so famous. We felt the same about the Harlem Globetrotters. It’s interesting how unrealistic our whole perception was.

CG & NJJ: And the Beach Boys also came to Czechoslovakia.

SÍS: We really hoped to have some heavier rock group, but the Beach Boys were the ones that came.

CG & NJJ: How did you create the ­illustrations for
The Wall?

SÍS: I used very, very cheap industrial paper. I didn’t want to be too fancy with color. I wanted to keep it very raw. Then I added red ink.

CG & NJJ: How about the double-page spread with that blast of color?

SÍS: That was purposely trying to be like my adolescence. It’s also pen and ink with watercolors. I used to love all those colors coming together.

CG & NJJ: Last year you were honored at the Czech Embassy in Washington, D.C. Was that an emotional experience for you?

SÍS: The ambassador was nice, but it still felt like somebody said, “You know, you’ve got guts to write this book. If a Communist country comes to power again, you’re going to be in big trouble, you know that.” I never thought of it like that, but that’s how it is. In a way it was very interesting, and was one of those things that comes back to you only later when other people relate their own stories of how they escaped.

CG & NJJ: What did you hope might be the response to
The Wall?

SÍS: I didn’t hope for much response. I really wanted my children to understand what I’ve been trying to tell them. I was pleasantly surprised that this book created very deep feelings in some people. So far the response has been more than I could have hoped.

Sampling Sís

Tibet through the Red Box. 1998. 64p. Farrar/Frances Foster, $25 (9780374375522).

Gr. 7–12. Sís re-creates pages from his father’s diary in this spellbinding portrait of Vladimir Sís’ experiences in Tibet, where he was sent in the 1950s to instruct the Chinese in documentary filmmaking.

The Tree of Life: Charles Darwin. 2003. 44p. Farrar/Frances Foster, $18 (9780374456283).

Gr. 4–12. This detailed and fascinating picture book chronicles the life of Charles Darwin.

The Wall: Growing Up behind the Iron Curtain. 2007. 56p. Farrar/Frances Foster, $18 (9780374347017).

Gr. 7–12. Sís’ autobiographical picture book follows his growing up in Czechoslovakia under Soviet rule.

Selected Picture Books for Older Readers

Picture books provide personal pleasure, aesthetic satisfaction, awareness of language, literary quality, and interesting content. The term picture book denotes a format rather than a grade level, and the content in many of the books below requires an emotional maturity or background knowledge of the audience. The following books will intrigue upper-elementary, middle- and high-school students and promote conversation about both text and illustration.

The Arrival. By Shaun Tan. 2007. 128p. Scholastic/Arthur A. Levine, $19.99 (9780439895293). Gr. 6–12.

Birmingham, 1963. By Carole Boston Weatherford. 2007. 40p. Boyds Mills/Wordsong, $17.95 (9781590784402). Gr. 4–12.

Hidden Child. By Isaac Millman. 2005. 80p. Farrar, $18 (9780374330712). Gr. 5–12.

Home of the Brave. By Allen Say. 2002. 32p. Houghton/Walter Lorraine, $17 (9780618212231). Gr. 5–12.

Jazz. By Walter Dean Myers. Illus. by Christopher Myers. 2006. 48p. Holiday, $18.95 (9780823415458). Also available in an audio edition from Live Oak. Gr. 5–12. Also see Myers’
Blues Journey (Holiday, 2003).

John’s Secret Dreams: The Life of John Lennon. By Doreen Rappaport. Illus. by Bryan Collier. 2004. 48p. Hyperion, $16.99 (9780786808175). Gr. 4–12.

The Legend of Lao Tzu and the Tao Te Ching. By Demi. 2007. 48p. Simon & Schuster/Margaret K. McElderry, $21.99 (9781416912064). Gr. 4–12.

Memories of Survival. By Bernice Steinhardt and Esther Nisenthal Krinitz. 2005. 64p. Hyperion, $15.99 (9780786851263). Gr. 6–12.

Michelangelo. By Diane Stanley. 2000. 48p. HarperCollins, $17.99 (9780688150853); HarperTrophy, paper, $6.99 (9780060521134). Gr. 5–12.

Miss Crandall’s School for Young Ladies and Little Misses of Color. By Elizabeth Alexander and Marilyn Nelson. Illus. by Floyd Cooper. 2007. 48p. Boyds Mills/Wordsong, $17.95 (9781590784563). Gr. 6–12.

Muhammad Ali: Champion of the World. By Jonah Winter. Illus. by François Roca. 2008. 32p. Random/Schwartz & Wade, $16.99 (9780375836220). Gr. 4–12.

Patrol: An American Soldier in Vietnam. By Walter Dean Myers. Illus. by Ann Grifalconi. 2002. 40p. HarperTrophy, paper, $6.99 (9780060731595). Gr. 4–12.

Pink and Say. By Patricia Polacco. 1994. 48p. Philomel, $16.99 (9780399226717). Gr. 4–12.

Walt Whitman: Words for America. By Barbara Kerley. Illus. by Brian Selznick. 2004. 56p. Scholastic, $16.95 (9780439357913). Gr. 4–12.

Whale Port: A History of Tuckanucket. By Mark Foster. Illus. by Gerald Foster. 2007. 64p. Houghton/Walter Lorraine, $18 (9780618547227).

Gr. 4–12.

When Marian Sang: The True Recital of Marian Anderson. By Pam Muñoz Ryan. Illus. by Brian Selznick. 2002. 40p. Scholastic, $16.95 (9780439269674). Also available in an audio edition from Live Oak. Gr. 4–12.

William Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. Retold by Bruce Coville. Illus. by Tim Raglin. 2003. 48p. Dial, $16.99 (9780803723184). Gr. 4–12.

A Wreath for Emmett Till. By Marilyn Nelson. Illus. by Philippe Lardy. 2005. 48p. Houghton, $17 (9780618397525). Gr. 9–12. 

Cyndi Giorgis is an associate professor of children’s and young-adult literature at the University of Nevada–Las Vegas.
Nancy J. Johnson is a professor of English education at Western Washington University. For a teacher’s guide for
The Wall, visit