Friday, January 16, 2015

Opening Doors

Peter Sís
Photo: Palma Fiocco

 The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry is Peter Sís' favorite book. "When I got it from my father, he made a point that it's a special book," Sís told me when I got to interview him for Kirkus Reviews about his book The Pilot and the Little Prince. "It was about secrets." At the time, Sís was a child growing up in Prague under a totalitarian regime, and The Little Prince transported him outside of its walls. "This was a door through which I could go myself," he says. "I could go to another place or another planet."

The Pilot and the Little Prince took Sís a long time to write. "The Galileo (Starry Messenger) and Darwin (The Tree of Life) books happened while this project percolated," says Sís. "With Darwin and Galileo, I wanted to show children that people would be against them, and they'd have to face challenges." On the other hand, Sís says, "Saint-Exupéry is about the poetry." But it's also a history of the airplane. Born in 1900, Saint-Exupéry started flying at the dawn of aviation and, as a pilot, saw dramatic changes in the development of the airplane. The Lockheed P-38 Lightning Antoine flies at the end of the book is almost as advanced as the planes today, according to Sís. He simultaneously captures both the possibilities of science and the poetry of the era in which the author/artist and aviator lived. This duality resonated with Sís, who grew up reading Jules Verne and watching the films of Georges Méliès, among other artists, to whom he gives a nod in the opening spread.

Sís has returned to The Little Prince at different stages in his life. "As a child, I thought, 'Of course, he talks about how we children know it's an elephant in a boa constrictor.' " These are the secrets Saint-Exupéry confides—that children understand what adults do not. “I remember coming to this country, it was a book of hope," Sís continues. "Reading it to my children later, it was more melancholy and sad. Being older, you understand both worlds. Unfortunately, I became the adult."

This is an excerpt from a feature that originally appeared in Kirkus Reviews.

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