Peter Sis Uses His Own Kids As Inspiration for His Award-Winning Children's Books

Filed under: Books for Kids, Celeb News & Interviews

peter sis books picture

Peter Sis started illustrating children's books after Maurice Sendak saw his work. Credit: Macmillan Children's Publishing Group

Madlenka, the charming protagonist of two previous books by children's author and illustrator Peter Sis, is back in "Madlenka Soccer Star."

Born in Brno, Czechoslovakia, Sis, 61, began his career as an animation filmmaker. In 1982, the Czech government sent him to Los Angeles to cover the Olympics, and, while there, he decided to stay. An introduction to children's book author Maurice Sendak ("Where the Wild Things Are") led to meetings with editors and a new career.

Sis's first illustrated book (written by Sid Fleischman), "The Whipping Boy," won a Newbery Medal, and his subsequent books, "The Wall," "Tibet Through the Red Box" and "Starry Messenger" all earned Caldecott honors.

Father to Madeline, a.k.a. Madlenka, 17, and Matt, 16, Sis lives in New York City. He recently spoke with ParentDish about his children, his books and working with Jackie O.

ParentDish: So, Madlenka is named after your daughter, Madeline.
Peter Sis:
She's really Madeline, but I changed it because it was too close to the famous book "Madeline." The publisher thought people would get confused, so I used the Czech version of Madeline, which is Madlenka, and I was making sketch books and little stories about her since she was 2.

Now, really, this book should be called, "Where is Madlenka Going to College and Who is Going to Pay for it?" She's going to be 18 in December. She found it difficult growing up because there were little films on "Sesame Street" about Madlenka and some people would come up to her and say, "You are Madlenka." I should have said in the beginning, this is about a girl who looks just like you and has all these adventures.

PD: When she's older, she's going to think it's so cool that she had books written about her.
I wanted to show pictures of her in the book, how cute she looked when she played soccer, and she said, "No, no I look too obese." I can't really do books about teens, so I go back in my memories to the little adventures we had when she was little. I still have stories of how she was buying ice cream or playing music, stuff like that.

I started writing "Madlenka" because of my excitement of living on the block with people from all over the world, because I grew up in a country where basically everybody was the same. When she was a little girl, she was always running around the block and people would give her lollipops or candy, so I used it as a framework of all these stories.

PD: How old is your son?
Matt is 16 and bigger than me. Of course, I wanted to do books for him, so I made little books for him. He went from trucks to fire trucks to dinosaurs. It actually was the most fruitful time as a children's book author.

PD: You never set out to write children's books.
I came to L.A. to work on the Olympics and the film I was working on got killed because I was there on behalf of the Czech government and all the Eastern bloc countries pulled out, so the whole project collapsed. I worked on a Bob Dylan song for MTV and they didn't like my film.

All of a sudden, I was looking for what I should do and someone sent my pictures to Maurice Sendak and he called me and asked me if I wanted to do children's books. I was penniless when he called so I said, "Sure!" I thought, I will make books which will be turned into films and it will be no problem to sell millions of books in America because everyone will buy them.

He told me I had to come to the East Coast and I started to do illustrations because all the publishers thought, "Well, he's not from here, he doesn't know the sentiment of the kids." So, I started to illustrate and one of the first books I did got the Newbery award, so all of a sudden I could do my own books. I look back and I was so lucky. I knew nothing about American kids, so I was doing books about explorers and people in history. Only after I had kids, I started to follow my own kids.

At the same time, it was sort of dangerous because I started to use my kids and I started to think I owned all their stories and them as characters and now they are grown up they say, "Dad, it's my story." It's funny that way.

PD: Don't you think kids are kids the world over?
Yes. I think you're right and, also, because I'm not from New York, I would see things with a different eye. When I first came, I would see things I don't see anymore because when you live somewhere for many years you stop seeing things. You have to go to the bank and pick up dry cleaning and you become a boring grownup. So, in a way, even though I was grown up, I was like a child seeing things. I remember being so amused by the doormen in New York and wanting to do a book about it.

PD: You worked with Jackie Onassis.
It was amazing. She called me and gave me a chance to do a book about the city I grew up in, Prague. She went there when the wall came down and she loved the architecture. Unfortunately, it was her last book. It came out one month after she passed away.

I did know who she was, but I didn't know what she meant to all the Americans. I remember when I went to Doubleday to meet her and she came to get me in the lobby and I didn't know how to react, so I was sort of pretending she's just an editor. When we were talking I said, "I have two kids," and she said, "Oh, I have two kids." I think because of my accent she thought I didn't know who she is. We never resolved it 'til the end that I would say, "Oh, I know who you are." It was strange that way.

At one point, she came to my studio downtown and I was in a big building with lots of studios and she was trying to find me. And, afterwards, everyone in the building was saying, "Did you hear Jackie Onassis was in the building?" She was a wonderful and inspirational editor.

PD: What was it like growing up in Prague?
It was so drab and so gray and so dreary and you knew you can't get out, so you're dreaming about outside. I remember walking in empty streets and thinking if I could ever get to London or even Germany. Prague now is a tourist place, but the Prague of my childhood, I had not really very much going on. It also made me draw and stay at home because it was really depressing.

PD: Adversity in childhood is tough, but it often helps people become successful as adults.
It's true. But you can't create adversity for your children. (Laughs.) My father would do this. He would wake us up in the morning saying, "The whole world is already marching!" So, I never wanted to do this.

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AdviceMama Says:
Start by teaching him that it is safe to do so.