Every Peter Sís book with which I am familiar seems much more like a picture book for adults than for children. Nevertheless, his books continue to be catalogued with children’s materials, perhaps because there is no category as of yet for adult picture books. In this way, adults without young children miss out on a number of worthy books.
This is a biography of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, whom most modern Americans know and love only as the author of The Little Prince. But the accomplishments of Saint-Exupéry were much more extensive.
He became one of the first pilots to deliver mail by air, flying in Europe and along the West African coast (where European countries had colonies). He rescued stranded pilots too, which sometimes involved dealing with hostile nomads. He helped create new mail routes to South America. On an attempt to win a prize for the fastest flight from Paris to Saigon, he and his mechanic crashed in North Africa and wandered in the desert for days before being rescued. When WWII began, he became a war pilot.
When the Germans occupied France, Saint-Exupéry decided he could no longer live there, and sailed for New York. He didn’t speak English, but he could write and paint, and began working on a story about a little prince, published in April, 1943.
He missed France though, and rejoined his old Army squadron in North Africa. On July 31, 1944, he took off to photograph enemy positions east of Lyon, and was never seen again. The book ends with the thought, in obvious reference to The Little Prince:
“Maybe Antoine found his own glittering planet next to the stars.”
This lovely book, both written and illustrated by Sís, features clever, very detailed pictures full of cultural allusions and historical data. He uses a muted palette and mixed media in two-page spreads that include watercolor, pen-and-ink, rubber stamps, and scratched color on gesso. Particularly inventive are the ways he comes up with to convey “the face of the landscape,” the scary nature of Manhattan, and the German invasion of France, ingeniously shown in bleeding watercolors.
Everywhere you look there is something to spot, from the famous image from filmmaker Georges Méliès’s 1902 film “A Trip to the Moon,” (featured prominently in Brian Selznick’s The Invention of Hugo Cabret) to the crate of carrier pigeons used on airplanes before radios (there is a lot of information about early aviation). And repeatedly, maps are drawn into images, or images turn into maps.
Discussion: Although this book has many elements that will appeal primarily to older or even adult readers, Sís does cater to his younger audience by omitting the less pleasant or complicated aspects of Saint-Exupéry’s life, such as his relationships with women, his conflicts with General Charles de Gaulle, and the eventual discovery of the remains of his plane in 2000 and their recovery in 2003. The romantic notion that Saint-Exupéry flew off to a glittering planet is much more appealing….
Evaluation: The artwork of Peter Sís is not to be missed. And with this book, you can learn a great deal about a man who deserves to be known for more than his most famous book – which, however, deserves its almost universal adoration (The Little Prince has been translated into over 250 languages and dialects.)
Published by Frances Foster Books, Farrar Straus Giroux Books for Young Readers, 2014