Peter Sís on 'The Little Prince' and the Power of the Picture Book
Few adults have come of age without reading The Little Prince. The moving tale of friendship and loss is more than a captivating text; it is a near-religious experience for readers across the globe. As one of the world’s first mail-delivery pilots, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry worked tirelessly and fearlessly to connect people in his impossibly-large world. Never could he have known that his most lasting impact would come in the form of this small book.
In between flights, he wrote often. Exupéry turned his fellow pilots into heroes through nonfiction works such as Wind, Sand and Stars, where he chronicles a harrowing journey of survival after a crash in the Sahara Desert. In the enchanting picture book The Pilot and the Little Prince, illustrator and writer Peter Sís gives due to the beloved author, depicting his life in a series of detailed and impactful images. We had the pleasure of sitting down with Sís to speak about his inspirations, the impact Little Prince first had on him, and the power of the picture book.
Bookish: When did you first read The Little Prince? What effect did it have on you?
Peter Sís: I’m not quite sure if I was 11, 12, 13, but I was living in Czechoslovakia. It wasn’t like we could really think about going places, so you would live all these adventures in books. And my father, [who] would give me books to read, came with The Little Prince, and he said, “This is a special book.” I read it, and it was amazing. I remember that it was about the promise that one day I would go and discover the world.
I read it again 20 years later, and again 20 years later. The second time I read it was with the illustrations; that was when I came to America to make a film in Los Angeles. At the time, I wasn’t sure: Should I stay? Should I go? Seeing it with the illustrations actually gave me fortitude. I thought, Well, he’s brave, and the pilot survives everything, so I will survive in America.
The last time I read it to my kids, I thought, Oh my God! This is so sad. I’m going to die now, too. But when I read it when I was 11 or 12, I didn’t see that at all. I saw: Wow, this is a cool way to travel. He doesn’t leave his body; it’s like his spirit is moving through space. It seemed more amazing.
Bookish: How did your readings of it influence the way that you wrote about Exupéry in The Pilot and the Little Prince?
PS: There’s a certain sadness to [The Little Prince], a melancholy. Exupéry says you cannot trust grown-ups. I think it’s also about how you see things as a child and how you see things, or read things, as an adult. That was difficult with this, to try to stay away from that melancholy feeling. I wanted to celebrate his life because he was this bigger-than-life man.
Bookish: When did you start the book?
PS: I wanted to do this 10 years ago. We were supposed to do a version of The Little Prince with U2, with Bono, that would go to Amnesty International. But I didn’t know how.
I would never dare to do Exupéry’s illustrations. His pictures have that feeling, that whole sentiment which gives the book its flavor. He wasn’t an artist who painted all the time. He did it with such an effort, there’s something heartbreaking [about that].
Bookish: What changed your mind?
PS: I was playing with it since then. Trying to come up with something, I went through his life. That’s when I realized he flies an airplane, then he crashes, he flies another airplane, and he almost drowns, he flies another… The airplanes were getting more sophisticated, but he would always break something or have stitches or almost lose his eye. In a way, I felt a lot like him. I’m very clumsy, too. I was always in the hospital with stitches.
He also was a great inventor and a very smart man. Anytime they would assign him to the company in the army, someone would say, “Oh it’s some idiot coming here”—because his family had this amazing, old aristocratic name. Then, he’d come and buy wine for everyone, play chess, all kinds of card tricks—they loved him.
He always became an essential part of any group he was in, to the point, that I think he had a problem then, because he wrote these books about how all the other pilots out there were heroes. He made them heroes in the public life—especially his friend Guillaumet, who was very shy and very private. He wrote a story about how Guillaumet walked through the mountains of South America for five days because he was afraid that if they didn’t find his body that his wife would not get the money from the company for him dying. Exupéry made Guillaumet into a hero in France. And Guillaumet is like, “I never wanted to be a hero.”
Bookish: The vibe I get from him, from your book, is that he did suffer—the crashes, horrible accidents, he dropped out of school, failed his tests—but there’s always a positivity about him.
PS: Yes! He’s very, very fond of life. Exupéry wanted to be a pilot and [he] became a pilot in the end, but many times it didn’t look like he was going to be anything. Everybody probably said, “Oh my God, he dropped out of school. What’ll ever become of him?” I like that page [of the book] in the sense that it shows what everybody is going through.
In a way, it’s also about me. I never thought I would be doing children’s books or books. I wanted to make films. I never thought I would be in America. It shows what you cannot tell the kids, like, “Hey! Don’t worry about it because you don’t know what will happen.”
Bookish: Exupéry crashed so many times. Was difficult for him to overcome any fear and get back in that pilot seat?
PS: I think that’s the spirit of these early pilots. They’re amazing individuals that were, somehow, ready to die for it. Maybe sometimes when you get on the plane today, you have a little flash of I wonder if something will go wrong. But it’s a small percentage when something goes wrong. Their percentage must’ve been 75%. He definitely goes back, and it is shocking. I’m wondering if there were some people who said, “I will never go back because it’s insane.” But this whole being so brave, it’s one thing if you don’t get hurt, but he got hurt so many times and then he goes again.
They had the spirit of the pioneers. In the end, these four close friends who started in 1927, they all died in the air. Exupéry heard about his closest friend being shot down, that was just a tragedy of war. But nobody knows who shot down Exupéry.
Bookish: What do you think happened to him?
PS: They say that in these little planes sometimes the blue sky and the blue sea… that you don’t see the horizon, you lose completely the sense of… That’s what I always thought happened to Exupéry, that he didn’t know where is up and where is down, and he went into the sea. The only thing they know is they found the engine of the plane and his bracelet, which is in the [Morgan Library] exhibition and was given to him by his publisher.
There was a German pilot that said he shot him down. But they say the Germans had amazing, exact records of what happened each day, and there’s no record of shooting him down.
Another theory, which I have big problems with—some of the books claim that he was tired, depressed, and didn’t want to live, really. [They say] that he knew if he died, he would become bigger than life—that he had almost like a death wish. And I can’t say that he was happy. I can do it as an author, but I hate when people start to imagine what was the deep psychological state [of the person].
How does anybody know? I think it’s hard to write where it’s autobiographical and not make these innuendos.
Bookish: It’s easy on the surface to see what The Pilot and the Little Prince about, but the book also has so many layers to it.
PS: My editor is very factual. She’d say, “What airplane was he flying?” I said, “I don’t care what airplane he was flying.” She said, “This was in 1927. He was flying this plane. Do the picture.” These pictures sometimes drove me crazy, but then I found out that lots of kids love that. If they don’t want to look at the whole poetic aspect of life, they can still find out these sort of facts. That was very interesting because it didn’t come completely from my heart in the beginning. But now it nicely compensates for the pictures. I always wanted to have a few pictures which would just be peaceful, sort of like meditation—and then you have these pages which are full.
There are some pages which are so loaded because, even though he only lived 44 years, he was so extremely busy all the time. There are these moments where I had to get in all kinds of information. There was a whole argument about his father dying at age 4. I didn’t want to mention it because, from all the books I read, he had such a wonderful childhood. He was one of five children, lived in this country estate, and they were playing all the time. From everything I’ve seen, they compensated for not having that father. I felt like it was blackmailing people to say, “Oh, poor child.” Then I read some book about bereavement and I thought, Okay. If he died, then Exupéry was probably wondering where the father went. He was little, the father was gone, so where’s my father? I thought maybe he thought his father was in the stars and that’s why he wants to fly.
My editor said, “This is terrible. You can’t say that, you don’t know.” But I said, “You don’t know if he was missing the father.” It’s so schmaltzy that I have him thinking of his father in the stars, but I thought, At least it gives me the explanation. I don’t want to just say he lost his father, and then it’s like, “Please feel for my book because this hero lost his father at age 4.”
I think that children deal with death in a different way than adults. So I just did like these people missing from his life. I had done it already when I did my book about my father [Tibet Through the Red Box]. When my father was gone, I thought as a child he was gone for many, many years. As a grownup, I found out he was gone for 19 months. So in Tibet, I did pictures where the father’s always missing in the picture. So, [in Pilot,] the brother and sister are missing. These are my little takes on things which, I think, are the power of the picture book. If you would have to write it in text, then you can’t avoid it, and it depends on tone how you make it work.
Bookish: You’ve said that you don’t plan out the people you write about in advance, it’s just sort of who inspires you. Is there anyone right now that you’re dying to illustrate?
PS: It’s very hard, actually. If you think, like in today’s world, who are the people who really are meaningful and inspiring with no sort of doubt around them… It’s just amazing how few they are.
I just did a tapestry in memory of Seamus Heaney. We were supposed to do something together and then, unexpectedly, he died. I did a picture of him flying on the book, and it’s going to be unveiled in Dublin.
I did the same thing for Václav Havel, who was also a hero for me. Now they say, “Can you do something about Nelson Mandela?” I was trying just over the weekend. It’s going to be so hard because it’s so many different aspects, and I have never been to South Africa, and he means so much.
There’s this wonderful writer, who I’ve know for years, who wants to write a book and wants me to illustrate it. Her name is Jamaica Kincaid and she’s an amazing writer. There was an article in the New York Times about how African-American kids don’t have books, and she immediately reacted and is writing a book.
I still want to do a book about Marco Polo, but it’s more because nobody knows anything about him and I’m fascinated by traveling. I was living in a country where you couldn’t travel, couldn’t cross the border, couldn’t go anywhere. When you heard about America, it was amazing. Now I know Massachusetts is here and Texas is here, but for us it was smooshed like Massachusetts-Texas-Cadillac-Elvis-Presley. Then, there were all these people who came from over the Wall, Louie Armstrong and Merce Cunningham. So it was like: This must be the most amazing country where all these people make music, paint paintings, play rock’n’roll, and have golden cars. It was this amazing myth. In a way, it was a happy time because you’d live in bad conditions, but you thought, There’s someplace which is so amazing and if I could get there one day…
Bookish: Do you have a favorite illustration in the book?
PS: I do. It’s so bad now, because I’ve seen the French and Spanish translations and they didn’t translate it as it is in English. Guillaumet tells Exupéry to “not just to depend on the map but to follow the face of the landscape.” They translated it: “follow the silhouette of the landscape.” They don’t have the face thing, and all of a sudden he sees faces everywhere. The original idea was to make it very simple. Then I thought, This is going to be so neat—it says follow the face, and there are faces in everything! That’s still my favorite one.
Bookish: Aside from The Little Prince, where else did you draw inspiration from for the illustrations?
PS: I did a famous poster for the New York subway, The Whale. It was before 9/11, I drew this whale and it was supposed to be like Manhattan. Then, it got this amazing meaning after 9/11. It was on the subway almost two years, and I would be getting messages every day with people just saying thank you. It somehow brought people together, somehow it had power for them. We are from Manhattan and it will survive. So this was the most amazing social thing I did in my art.
Ten years after that, they asked, “Would you do another poster?” So I started to. Then I was thinking about when Exupéry came to Manhattan. It’s such a frantic place, it was too much for him. I thought, No. I will not give it to subway. I don’t need another poster in subway, I will use it for the book.
Bookish: I particularly loved the page on Germany’s invasion of France. It was incredibly powerful.
PS: I almost didn’t dare to put it in. It was so different from everything else [in the book]. I was playing with the idea of the war. I always felt that the war must’ve been a terrible shock for him when all of a sudden the airplane was used as a killing machine. I wanted to have fire and damage; I wanted to have little towns with all the armies coming in. I thought it had to be detailed. Then I would think: No! It has to stay simple. It couldn’t be anything else.
Peter Sís is the internationally renowned author and/or illustrator of many books for children. He is the recipient of the 2012 Hans Christian Andersen Award for Illustration and has also been awarded a MacArthur Fellowship. He has lived in and around New York City since 1984.
Images courtesy of Macmillan Children’s Publishing Group.