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Visual Artists, Part 2

When con­sid­er­ing pic­ture book biogra­phies of visu­al artists, one can­not over­look the three illus­tra­tors who have gar­nered Calde­cott Hon­ors for their auto­bi­o­graph­i­cal works.

Part 2: Bill Peet, Uri Shulevitz, and Peter Sís2
Bill Peet (né William Bartlett Peed)1 (1915 — 2002)

Bill Peet: An AutobiographyIn Bill Peet: An Auto­bi­og­ra­phy, the author-illus­tra­tor recounts a life guid­ed by his pas­sion for art. As a child in Indi­anapo­lis, when not romp­ing in the woods or play­ing in a creek near his home, Bill Peet was draw­ing. “I drew for hours at a time just for the fun of it, and yet I was hop­ing to find some prac­ti­cal rea­son to draw for the rest of my life.”2 His sta­ble home life with his two broth­ers, moth­er, and grand­moth­er turned chaot­ic when his absent and abu­sive father returned in 1928 and his grand­moth­er died short­ly after­wards. For the next few years, the fam­i­ly remained in the city but moved often, kept poor dur­ing the Great Depres­sion by his spend­thrift father.

Bill Peet: an Autobiography

Walt Dis­ney and Bill Peet,” illus­tra­tion © Bill Peet, Bill Peet: An Auto­bi­og­ra­phy, Bill Peet, HMH Books for Young Read­ers, 1989

Peet strug­gled aca­d­e­m­i­cal­ly in high school until he focused on art, which led to a schol­ar­ship to the John Her­ron Art Insti­tute in Indi­anapo­lis. The young man left after three years in the hopes of estab­lish­ing him­self as an artist. In 1937, he applied for and was accept­ed into a one-month “try­out” in Los Ange­les for Walt Dis­ney Stu­dios. While Peet “was nev­er inter­est­ed in any kind of cartooning….it was no time to be choosy”3 in an uncer­tain econ­o­my. He passed the gru­el­ing tri­al and began what was to become a 27-year career, pri­mar­i­ly as a sketch artist and sto­ry devel­op­er. He worked on such clas­sic ani­mat­ed films as Fan­ta­sia, Alice in Won­der­land, Sleep­ing Beau­ty, and 101 Dal­ma­tians.

Work­ing with can­tan­ker­ous cre­ative per­son­al­i­ties was try­ing and Peet found him­self “much more inter­est­ed in illus­trat­ing sto­ry books, which was my very first boy­hood ambi­tion.”4 In the late 1940s through the 1950s, Peet dreamed up dozens of sto­ries, many shared with his sons at bed­time and devel­oped as sketch­es, but he strug­gled writ­ing engag­ing text. Final­ly, the Gold­en Book that Peet devel­oped from the 1959 Dis­ney movie Goliath II  proved to be a break­through, giv­ing him con­fi­dence to return to his many tablets filled with ideas. He pub­lished five books with Houghton Mif­flin before leav­ing Walt Dis­ney Stu­dios in 1964 to devote his time to writ­ing and illus­trat­ing He end­ed his suc­cess­ful sec­ond career with 35 pic­ture books.

Bill Peet: An Autobiography
“The cir­cus comes to town,” illus­tra­tion © Bill Peet, Bill Peet: An Auto­bi­og­ra­phy,
Bill Peet, HMH Books for Young Read­ers, 1989

Peet presents his life sto­ry as an unbro­ken nar­ra­tive in 190 pages, copi­ous­ly illus­trat­ed with ener­getic black and white draw­ings ren­dered in pen­cil5 and pen and ink in Peet’s famil­iar car­toon style. Each sin­gle- or dou­ble-page spread devotes as much space to illus­tra­tions as to text, with dynam­ic page designs that vary through­out the book.

That this hefty tome received a 1990 Calde­cott Hon­or may seem sur­pris­ing, as the Calde­cott Award rec­og­nizes “most dis­tin­guished Amer­i­can pic­ture book for chil­dren.”6  Pic­ture books are typ­i­cal­ly 32 pages, although they can range in length from 24 to 48 pages or longer.7 How­ev­er, each Calde­cott Award Com­mit­tee estab­lish­es which books meet the def­i­n­i­tion: “[A]s dis­tin­guished from oth­er books with illus­tra­tions, [a pic­ture book for chil­dren] is one that essen­tial­ly pro­vides the child with a visu­al expe­ri­ence. A pic­ture book has a col­lec­tive uni­ty of sto­ry­line, theme, or con­cept, devel­oped through the series of pic­tures of which the book is com­prised.”8 Fur­ther, “Chil­dren are defined as per­sons of ages up to and includ­ing four­teen.”9 Com­mit­tee deci­sions regard­ing a book’s eli­gi­bil­i­ty are made with care­ful con­sid­er­a­tion and delib­er­a­tion of award def­i­n­i­tions and cri­te­ria in tan­dem with pic­ture book pre­sen­ta­tion and con­tent. The draw­ings in Peet’s auto­bi­og­ra­phy com­ple­ment and expand the text, depict­ing the peo­ple, ani­mals, land­scapes, and imag­i­na­tive crea­tures that define Peet’s life as a pro­fes­sion­al artist.

Bill Peet: an Autobiography
“Skin­ny dip­ping,” illus­tra­tion © Bill Peet, Bill Peet: An Auto­bi­og­ra­phy,
Bill Peet, HMH Books for Young Read­ers, 1989
Uri Shulevitz (1935 — )

How I Learned Geography by Uri ShulevitzAcross the globe in War­saw, Poland, anoth­er boy was des­tined to be an artist. When Uri Shule­vitz arrived home from the hos­pi­tal, not yet named, his father saw him study­ing the flow­ered wall­pa­per from his crib. His father pro­nounced that “‘His name should be Uri, after the bib­li­cal Uri…the first artist of the Bible.’ Moth­er agreed.”10  By age three, Uri was draw­ing on the apart­ment walls; lat­er, he drew wher­ev­er he could, includ­ing the mar­gins of his father’s news­pa­pers.11

His child­hood was far from idyl­lic, how­ev­er. When Shule­vitz was four, the War­saw blitz of 1939 dam­aged the family’s apart­ment build­ing. In des­per­a­tion, the boy and his moth­er escaped Poland to join his father, who was wait­ing for them in the Sovi­et Union. At that time, they didn’t real­ize they would be refugees for the next ten years, in search of a per­ma­nent home in a new country.

How I Learned Geography
“Father mount­ing the map,” illus­tra­tion © Uri Shule­vitz,
How I Learned Geog­ra­phy, Uri Shule­vitz, Far­rar, Straus and Giroux, 2008

How I Learned Geog­ra­phy, a 2008 Calde­cott Hon­or book, is a slice-of-life auto­bi­og­ra­phy in which Shule­vitz retells a poignant sto­ry from the family’s ear­ly years in the city of Turkestan in what is now Kaza­khstan, when he was four or five. As refugees, the fam­i­ly shared a small room with anoth­er cou­ple, slept on the floor, and had few belong­ings. “Worst of all: food was scarce.” One day, his father leaves for the bazaar to buy bread and returns late in the evening with only a large, rolled map in his arms. The fam­i­ly goes to bed hun­gry. When his father hangs the map the next day, it cov­ers a wall: “Our cheer­less room was flood­ed with col­or.” The boy trea­sures the map, copy­ing it on scraps of paper when­ev­er he can. He stud­ies the unusu­al place names and dreams of explor­ing the world. “And so I spent enchant­ed hours far, far from our hunger and misery.”

In a car­toon style, Shule­vitz infus­es his col­lage, pen and ink, and water­col­or12 illus­tra­tions in golds and blues. In the spreads depict­ing the boy’s imag­i­na­tive trav­els, Shule­vitz incor­po­rates col­ors from the map, using abun­dant textures.

How I Learned Geography
“Uri’s imag­i­nary trav­els,” illus­tra­tion © Uri Shule­vitz,
How I Learned Geog­ra­phy, Uri Shule­vitz, Far­rar, Straus and Giroux, 2008

Despite a root­less child­hood with many tribu­la­tions, Shulevitz’s par­ents encour­aged and val­ued his artis­tic endeav­ors.13  Once the fam­i­ly set­tled in Israel in 1949, the teen stud­ied at the Art Insti­tute of Tel Aviv. At 24, Shule­vitz moved to New York City and began illus­trat­ing books for a Hebrew pub­lish­er. His work caught the eye of renowned edi­tor Susan Hirschman, who encour­aged him to write a children’s book. With her guid­ance, Shule­vitz pub­lished his first book, The Moon in My Room, in 1963, four years after arriv­ing in the Unit­ed States. His career includes a 1969 Calde­cott Medal for Arthur Ransome’s The Fool of the World and the Fly­ing Ship and Calde­cott Hon­ors for The Trea­sure in 1980 and for Snow in 1999. In addi­tion to over 40 pic­ture books, his lit­er­ary cred­its include an illus­trat­ed mem­oir for young peo­ple, Chance: Escape from the  Holo­caust, which chron­i­cles his family’s jour­neys dur­ing and after World War II. While Shule­vitz cred­its his family’s sur­vival to chance, his endur­ing suc­cess as an author-illus­tra­tor rests on his “love of sto­ries”14 and his effort “to keep a fresh approach to [his] art.”15

Peter Sís (1949 — )

The Wall: Growing Up Behind the Iron Curtain, Peter SisBorn in Brno, Czecho­slo­va­kia, in post­war Europe, author-illus­tra­tor Peter Sís grew up under Com­mu­nist rule. Undaunt­ed by a restric­tive gov­ern­ment, his par­ents fos­tered the boy’s inter­est in art at a young age.

His moth­er, an artist, kept him sup­plied with paper and pen­cils16 once he start­ed draw­ing at age four or five.17 His father, a film­mak­er, raised his son “with a desire to be an artist and to be suc­cess­ful.”18 How­ev­er, as Sís reveals in his auto­bi­o­graph­i­cal work The Wall: Grow­ing Up Behind the Iron Cur­tain, express­ing a cre­ative spir­it in a repres­sive coun­try is chal­leng­ing and some­times dangerous.

Told in the third per­son, Sís fol­lows a boy “who loved to draw.” As he grows old­er, he begins to real­ize that free­dom is con­strict­ed, actions are mon­i­tored, and art is cen­sored in this “monot­o­ne and mono­lith­ic soci­ety.”19 In 1968, a pro­gres­sive Czech gov­ern­ment is short-lived, quashed by troops from the Sovi­et Union. In response, the artist and oth­ers like him are stealth­ily rebel­lious. Final­ly, seek­ing lib­er­a­tion, the artist soars over a secu­ri­ty fence, then a metaphor­i­cal wall, on a fly­ing bicy­cle that is lift­ed with wings mag­i­cal­ly con­struct­ed from his paintings.

Sís’s 2008 Calde­cott Hon­or book is mul­ti­lay­ered. A sim­ple sen­tence or phrase appears on the bot­tom of the sin­gle-page spreads. The deep­er con­text is shown in minute­ly detailed illus­tra­tions, dis­played either as mul­ti­ple pan­els or sin­gle large images. Ital­i­cized text along the sides of the illus­tra­tions describes the insid­i­ous actions of the gov­ern­ment and its infor­mants. Three dou­ble-page spreads show “the time of brain­wash­ing,” a col­or-filled Spring sea­son of hope, and a dead­ly post-con­cert “mêlée” with police. The dou­ble-page spreads at the end of the book fol­low the artist’s jour­ney to freedom.

Embed­ded in the nar­ra­tive are three “From My Jour­nals” spreads, with Sís’s per­son­al reflec­tions from 1954 – 1977. He explains that entries are not from actu­al jour­nals but are “more like mem­o­ries from my child­hood draw­ings,”20 added to the book upon the urg­ing of his astute edi­tor Frances Fos­ter. Read­ers famil­iar with Sís’s work will rec­og­nize the first entry, a ref­er­ence to his father’s trip to Chi­na “to make a film.” Sís recon­structs the sto­ry of the filmmaker’s nar­row escape from the col­lapse of a moun­tain wall and his months long trek through Tibet in the 1999 Calde­cott Hon­or book Tibet Through the Red Box, “the ulti­mate trib­ute”21 to his father.

To cre­ate his pointil­list and sur­re­al­is­tic illus­tra­tions,22  Sís uses “fine mark­er plus read ink, pen and ink with wash, [and]  water­col­ors”23  on “very, very cheap indus­tri­al paper” in an attempt to “keep it very raw.”24  Most of the illus­tra­tions are black and white, with strate­gic daubs of red and sub­ver­sive splash­es of col­ors. The cov­er gives the appear­ance of cor­ru­gat­ed car­board, the book hand-bound with string.

The Wall by Peter Sis
“he drew what he was told to at school,” illus­tra­tion © Peter Sis,
The Wall: Grow­ing Up Behind the Iron Cur­tain,
Peter Sis, Far­rar, Straus and Giroux, 2007
The Wall by Peter Sis
“he drew what he was told to at school,” illus­tra­tion © Peter Sis,
The Wall: Grow­ing Up Behind the Iron Cur­tain,
Peter Sis, Far­rar, Straus and Giroux, 2007

Much of the sto­ry mir­rors Sís’s life, with a cou­ple of notable excep­tions. Inter­est­ing­ly, he and his fam­i­ly were trav­el­ing in Europe when the Sovi­et tanks and sol­diers arrived in Prague in 1968. Lat­er, in 1982, Sís came to the Unit­ed States as an ani­ma­tor. When the project fell through and he was called back to Czecho­slo­va­kia, he defect­ed; thus, he didn’t wit­ness the 1989 col­lapse of the Com­mu­nist régime in his native coun­try, when The Wall concludes.

The animator’s tran­si­tion to children’s book illus­tra­tor occurred when an acquain­tance sent copies of Sís’s work to Mau­rice Sendak. While Sís hadn’t con­sid­ered illus­trat­ing children’s books, Sendak saw great poten­tial in the artist and became a men­tor. To date, Sís has illus­trat­ed over 40 books in the Unit­ed States, 28 of which he also wrote. In addi­tion to the two Calde­cott Hon­ors already not­ed, he received a third in 1997 for Star­ry Mes­sen­ger, a biog­ra­phy of Galileo Galilei. Beyond Sís’s suc­cess as an author-illus­tra­tor, he has pub­lished edi­to­r­i­al draw­ings and under­tak­en pub­lic art projects, such as murals, mosaics, and tapes­tries.25,26 Indeed, like the young artist in The Wall, Sís’s cre­ativ­i­ty can­not be restrained.

In their auto­bi­o­graph­i­cal works, Bill Peet, Uri Shule­vitz, and Peter Sís share how they began draw­ing as chil­dren and con­tin­ued to pur­sue their art into adult­hood, despite hard­ships along the way. Through per­son­al sto­ries, the author-illus­tra­tors reveal their dri­ve to cre­ate and their tenac­i­ty to con­tin­ue their artis­tic endeav­ors. These books encour­age chil­dren to fol­low their pas­sions, while remind­ing adults to pro­vide sup­port to young peo­ple as they explore and devel­op their talents.

Read more about Visu­al Artists in Part 1

Books Cited

Bent­ley, W. A., and W. J. Humphreys. Snow Crys­tals. New York: Dover, 1962.

Peet, Bill. Bill Peet: An Auto­bi­og­ra­phy. Boston: Houghton Mif­flin, 1989.

Peet, Bill. Walt Disney’s Goliath II. New York: Gold­en Press, 1959.

Ran­some, Arthur. The Fool of the World and the Fly­ing Ship. Illus­trat­ed by Uri Shule­vitz. New York: Far­rar Straus Giroux, 1968.

Shule­vitz, Uri. Chance: Escape from the Holo­caust. New York: Far­rar Straus Giroux, 2020.

Shule­vitz, Uri. How I Learned Geog­ra­phy. New York: Far­rar Straus Giroux, 2008.

Shule­vitz, Uri. The Moon in My Room. New York: Harp­er & Row, 1963.

Shule­vitz, Uri. The Trea­sure. New York: Far­rar Straus Giroux, 1979.

Shule­vitz, Uri. Snow. New York: Far­rar Straus Giroux, 1998.

Sís, Peter. Star­ry Mes­sen­ger: Galileo Galilei. New York: Frances Fos­ter Books/ Far­rar Straus Giroux, 1996.

Sís, Peter. Tibet Through the Red Box. New York: Frances Fos­ter Books/Farrar Straus Giroux, 1998.

Sís, Peter. The Wall: Grow­ing Up Behind the Iron Cur­tain. New York: Frances Fos­ter Books/Farrar Straus Giroux, 2007.

Notes
  1. Eric P. Nash, “Bill Peet, 87, Dis­ney Artist and Children’s Book Author,” New York Times, 18 May 2002.
  2. Bill Peet, Bill Peet: An Auto­bi­og­ra­phy (Boston: Houghton Mif­flin, 1989), 6.
  3. Peet, 71.
  4. Peet, 137.
  5. Asso­ci­a­tion for Library Ser­vice to Chil­dren (ALSC), The New­bery & Calde­cott Awards: A Guide to the Medal and Hon­or Books (Chica­go: Amer­i­can Library Asso­ci­a­tion, 2017), 118.
  6. Asso­ci­a­tion for Library Ser­vice to Chil­dren (ALSC), Ran­dolph Calde­cott Medal Com­mit­tee Man­u­al ([Chica­go, Ill.: The Asso­ci­a­tion], 2009): 10, accessed 12 Feb­ru­ary 2021.
  7. Chris­tine Van Zandt, “Ask an Edi­tor: Why are Pic­ture Books 32 Pages?,” Kite Tales: A Blog Pub­lished for the SCBWI Tri-Regions of South­ern Cal­i­for­nia, Soci­ety of Children’s Book Writ­ers and Illus­tra­tors-Los Ange­les, 8 June 2016.
  8. ALSC, Ran­dolph Calde­cott Medal Com­mit­tee Man­u­al, 10.
  9. ALSC, Ran­dolph Calde­cott Medal Com­mit­tee Man­u­al, 10.
  10. Uri Shule­vitz, Chance: Escape from the Holo­caust (New York: Far­rar Straus Giroux, 2020), 17.
  11. Shule­vitz, Chance, 18.
  12. ALSC, The New­bery & Calde­cott Awards, 101.
  13. Ingrid Rop­er, “On Mem­oir and Mem­o­ries,” Pub­lish­ers Week­ly 267, no. 29 (July 20, 2020): 29.
  14. Sharon Kor­beck Ver­beten, “A Sto­ried Career: At 70, Uri Shule­vitz Isn’t Slow­ing Down,” Chil­dren and Libraries: The Jour­nal of the Asso­ci­a­tion for Library Ser­vice to Chil­dren 3, no. 2 (Summer/Fall2005 2005): 52.
  15. Allen Ray­mond, “Uri Shule­vitz: ‘For Chil­dren of All Ages,’” Teach­ing Pre K‑8 22, no. 4 (Jan­u­ary 1992): 40.
  16. Peter Sís, “Peter Sís: Accep­tance Speech by Peter Sís,” IBBY: Inter­na­tion­al Board on Books for Young Peo­ple, Inter­na­tion­al Board on Books for Young Peo­ple, 25 August 2012.
  17. Antho­ny Mason and Martha Teich­n­er, “The Sto­ry of Artist Peter Sis, CBS.” CBS News Sun­day Morn­ing. Via­com Inter­net Ser­vices Inc., 5 Jan­u­ary 2001.
  18. Steven Heller, “Peter Sís, Children’s Book Author and Illus­tra­tor,” Print 58, no. 3 (May 2004): 30.
  19. Mason “The Sto­ry of Artist Peter Sís, CBS.”
  20. Cyn­di Gior­gis and Nan­cy J. John­son, “Talk­ing with Peter Sís,” Book Links 17, no. 6 (July 2008): 14.
  21. Heller, “Peter Sís,” 155.
  22. Will Hil­len­brand, “Dreams from Night­mares: An Inter­view with Peter Sís,” The Artist’s Mag­a­zine, July-August 2015, Gale In Con­text: High School.
  23. ALSC, The New­bery & Calde­cott Awards, 102.
  24. Gior­gis, “Talk­ing with Peter Sís,” 15.
  25. Heller, “Peter Sís,” 155.
  26. Peter Sís Press Release: The Eric Car­le Muse­um of Pic­ture Book Art Presents: The Pic­ture Book Odysseys of Peter Sís,” The Car­le, The Eric Car­le Muse­um of Pic­ture Book Art, 30 May 2019.
Bibliography

Asso­ci­a­tion for Library Ser­vice to Chil­dren (ALSC). The New­bery & Calde­cott Awards: A Guide to the Medal and Hon­or Books. Chica­go: Amer­i­can Library Asso­ci­a­tion, 2017.

Asso­ci­a­tion for Library Ser­vice to Chil­dren (ALSC). Ran­dolph Calde­cott Medal Com­mit­tee Man­u­al. [Chica­go, Ill.: The Asso­ci­a­tion], 2009.

Gior­gis, Cyn­di, and Nan­cy J. John­son. “Talk­ing with Peter Sís.” Book Links 17, no. 6 (July 2008): 13 – 16.

Heller, Steven. “Peter Sís, Children’s Book Author and Illus­tra­tor.” Print 58, no. 3 (May 2004): 30 – 162.

Hil­len­brand, Will. “Dreams from Night­mares: An Inter­view with Peter Sís.” The Artist’s Mag­a­zine, July-August 2015, 44+. Gale In Con­text: High School.

Mason, Antho­ny, and Martha Teich­n­er. “The Sto­ry of Artist Peter Sis, CBS.” CBS News Sun­day Morn­ing. Via­com Inter­net Ser­vices Inc., 5 Jan­u­ary 2001. 5 Jan­u­ary 2001.

Nash, Eric P. “Bill Peet, 87, Dis­ney Artist and Children’s Book Author.” New York Times, 18 May 2002.

Peet, Bill. Bill Peet: An Auto­bi­og­ra­phy. Boston: Houghton Mif­flin, 1989.

Peter Sís Press Release: The Eric Car­le Muse­um of Pic­ture Book Art Presents: The Pic­ture Book Odysseys of Peter Sís.” The Car­le. The Eric Car­le Muse­um of Pic­ture Book Art, 30 May 2019.

Ray­mond, Allen. “Uri Shule­vitz: ‘For Chil­dren of All Ages.’” Teach­ing Pre K‑8 22, no. 4 (Jan­u­ary 1992): 38 – 40.

Rop­er, Ingrid. “On Mem­oir and Mem­o­ries.” Pub­lish­ers Week­ly 267, no. 29 (July 20, 2020): 28 – 29.

Shule­vitz, Uri. Chance: Escape from the Holo­caust. New York: Far­rar Straus Giroux, 2020.

Sís, Peter. “Peter Sís: Accep­tance Speech by Peter Sís.” IBBY: Inter­na­tion­al Board on Books for Young Peo­ple. Inter­na­tion­al Board on Books for Young Peo­ple, 25 August 2012.

Van Zandt, Chris­tine. “Ask an Edi­tor: Why are Pic­ture Books 32 Pages?” Kite Tales: A Blog Pub­lished for the SCBWI Tri-Regions of South­ern Cal­i­for­nia. Soci­ety of Children’s Book Writ­ers and Illus­tra­tors-Los Ange­les, 8 June 2016.

Ver­beten, Sharon Kor­beck. “A Sto­ried Career: At 70, Uri Shule­vitz Isn’t Slow­ing Down.” Chil­dren and Libraries: The Jour­nal of the Asso­ci­a­tion for Library Ser­vice to Chil­dren 3, no. 2 (Summer/Fall 2005): 52 – 53.

One Response to Visual Artists, Part 2

  1. Marcia Berbeza February 26, 2021 at 5:12 pm #

    I retired from a pub­lic school library 5 years ago. All 3 of these brought back fond mem­o­ries. My favorite was Bill Peet’s biog­ra­phy. Even the most reluc­tant read­er loved it!!

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