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 recalls. "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." In a starred review of The Pilot and the Little Prince: The Life of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Kirkus echoed lines from this classic international tale: "What was essential about one golden-haired boy in love with flying becomes visible in Sís’ richly visual biographical portrait of French writer and aviator Antoine de Saint-Exupéry."
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.
"You can get too much research," Sís admits. "That happened to me with Darwin when I went to his house in England. You feel more responsibility." When he was about two-thirds of the way finished with The Pilot and the Little Prince, Sís not only read Saint-Exupéry's adult books Night Flight and Wind, Sand and Stars, but also Stacy Schiff's biography of him. But some of the speculation made him uncomfortable. He cites an example from his earlier research: "I loved the Van Gogh and Da Vinci biographies. But you get to a place where you read, 'and then Van Gogh cut off his ear.' How do they know this was the moment?" Sís asked. "This is when I prefer to be in my field, to leave it to the reader to come up with his own conclusion."
The creation of this book became a personal journey for Sís, with discoveries of many parallels between Saint-Exupéry's life and his own. Saint-Exupéry left his native France; Sís left Prague for America. "Exile is never temporary; he was caught between two countries," says Sís. During one of his father's visits to New York, he pointed to Central Park South and told Sís, "This is where Saint-Exupéry lived." Once Sís realized that the Frenchman had written The Little Prince in New York, he reread the book—as well as Saint-Exupéry's two aforementioned adult books.
Sís made conscious decisions about how to pay homage to The Little Prince while also making this a story about Saint-Exupéry's relationship to its creation. "I made drawings of all the characters on all the planets, then I ended up leaving them out," Sís explains. "I have 4 to 5 dummies from when I was changing different things and trying to say different things differently." Yet a few images do pay homage to Saint-Exupéry's artwork: An inset illustration that discusses Antoine in charge of the Cape Juby airfield, entertaining officers and nomads, depicts their profiles secured to a round table that may put Little Prince fans in mind of the planet with the overgrown baobab trees. A poignant depiction of a 4-year-old Antoine wondering where his recently deceased father went ("Was his father on a star?") bears a striking resemblance to the penultimate image in The Little Prince.
"I was trying to work with pictures reminiscent of the little boy with golden hair and what he sees and feels—to create something between the pictures and the text," Sís says. Many of his compositions do just that. One demonstrates the challenges of flying early on, with only a map as guide. Antoine's good friend Henri Guillaumet told him, "Follow the face of the landscape." Sís transitions into a wordless double-page spread of a golden landscape that comes alive with "faces" on cliffs, volcanoes and rock formations. "The planet is crowded with people, but when he flies, he can see large spaces without anyone," Sís says.
On a full-bleed three-quarter spread of German tanks, blood-colored watercolors representing their fiery destruction, Antoine learns that his friend Guillaumet has died. "That was a tough picture, with the tanks," Sís admits. "I thought, 'It has to be the shock of what happened, like the Blitzkrieg,' and the French were completely unprepared. Most of his friends were shot down. There were 25 in the unit, and 17 died." Sís then segues into a wordless spread of Saint-Exupéry crossing the Atlantic with only the full moon's reflection: "In that moment when he leaves Lisbon, he realizes he's leaving his country and also his best friend." Saint-Exupéry would never set foot on French soil again. That resonated with Sís. "When I came to America, I thought I'd never set foot in Prague again. I thought I'd never see my grandmother's kitchen. It was a heartbreaking feeling," Sís recalls. "I was trying to find a moment of contemplation there."
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."
Jennifer M. Brown is the children's editor of Shelf Awareness and the director of the Center for Children's Literature at the Bank Street College of Education in New York City.