Department of Guilty Pleasures: Peter Sis
Once upon a time -- i.e., before there were iPhones and an omnipresent internet -- I had a fabulous gig. I was working as a staff writer for Maine Times, the venerable (and, alas, now defunct) alternative newsweekly whose decision to add me to its masthead in 1986 was probably the biggest break of my career.
Much as I loved working for Maine Times, at least most of the time, that's not the gig I am talking about here. Rather, I'm referring to a side-hustle into which I blundered. I got to write catalog copy in the late 80s for a children's book purveyor called TellTales. It was based in Bath, not far from the world headquarters of Maine Times in Topsham.
It wasn't gonna pay the rent, but it was a good deal nonetheless. As to every book in the catalog for which I wrote the "blurb," I got 20 bucks and the right to keep the copy of the book with which I was furnished. My best blurb was the one I wrote for Round Buildings, Square Buildings & Buildings that Wriggle Like a Fish, by the Maine-based art and architecture writer (and also successful lawyer) Philip M. Isaacson. (Isaacson died in 2013 at the age of 97; you can still order his books.) Word trickled back to me, via the catalog publisher, that Isaacson thought my few words of description really captured the essence of his kids' book whose purpose was to engender a love of architecture.
Unfortunately TellTales did not thrive once printed catalogs were shoved out of the way by web sites, but from this experience I developed a lifetime addiction to children's picture books. I use the word "addiction" reluctantly because it's usually a lousy metaphor for "devotion," but it seems appropriate here because I'm not supposed to be buying these things.
My favorite creator of children's picture books is the Czechoslovakia-born author Peter Sis, now based in the Hudson Valley. So when I happened to hear on NPR that Sis has just published a new book, called Nicky & Vera, of course I promptly hit the "order" button on the web site of my local independent bookstore.
The story is both true and compelling: Vera Gissing was a child who was saved from the Holocaust by Nicholas Winton, a young man from Britain who quietly arranged to spirit 669 Jewish kids out of Prague just as the Nazis were slamming the borders shut. Half a century later, as an old man who had never taken public credit for his mega-good deed, Winton was reunited with Gissing and dozens of other people he had saved.
Though beautiful, the story isn't news. (The reunion, after all, took place on a TV show.) But as a reason for Sis to tell yet another compelling tale through pictures, it's a breaking story indeed. Sis has a knack for bringing an old-world perspective to his illustrations, which also have a playful and surreal feel to them so that, one senses, he captures something of how the bizarre adult world looks to innocent but sensible children. The small slice of one illustration I captured above, for example, conveys with hauting clarity what it must have been like to be one of nearly 600 kids conveyed by train and vessel from central Europe to England, never to see their birth families again.
Kids by the hundreds being separated from their families because of fascism and authoritarianism? How could that possibly be relevant today?
My favorite Peter Sis book is Madlenka -- I gather his daughter is the title character -- published 21 years ago. In a way, Madlenka and Vera are opposites; Vera must be rescued from her home city whereas Sis's daughter (to the extent Madlenka is true to life) enjoys a happy and bouncy young girlhood on the streets of the pre-9/11 Manhattan Lower East Side. It is a joyous celebration of multiculturalism and, like the latest book from Sis, is literally child-centric. (Sis is fond of circles and other round things.)
If you're lucky enough to have kids under foot these days, consider buying Nicky & Vera. Though it's not clear how much your garden variety six-year-old will appreciate this profound story, as that kid grows toward adulthood she will find something new and remarkable to discover every time she opens the book.
As for me, I'm still available to review kids' books for anyone who retails them, and I'm willing to revert back to the original deal: a free copy of the book plus $20.