Peter Sís, born in Brno, Czechoslovakia in 1949, worked as a radio disc jockey in his homeland before pursuing his artistic talents. He interviewed George Harrison and Ringo Starr of the Beatles and served as guide to the Beach Boys, who were allowed to tour Czechoslovakia in 1969 after the Russian invasion of the country. This is unique background and perspective could be what gives him the inspiration and perspective to create the diverse and unique picture books that he does. Sís the first children's book illustrator to win the MacArthur Fellowship - nicknamed the Genius Award. His books were cited as being "challenging and intricately drawn... Their graphic elegance and complexity make them appealing to adults as well." This could not be more true. Sís has a way of tackling seemingly adult topics like life behind the Iron Curtain, the life of Galileo Galilei, and his father's journey through Tibet while working as a documentary filmmaker sent by his Communist government to teach his craft to the Chinese, and making them both presentable and palatable to young readers, as well as old.
The Tree of Life: A Book Depicting the Life of Charles Darwin, Naturalist, Geologist & Thinker, is amazing. Intricately engrossing, something new can be discovered with every reading. And you will want to read this book many times over. Like AJ Wood and Clint Twist's Charles Darwin and the Beagle Adventure: Countries Visited During the Voyage Round the World of the HMS Beagle Under the Command of Captain FitzRoy, Royal Navy, Sís's book is a scrapbook, of sorts. However, Sís's is entirely visual with no flaps, fold-outs or envelopes as in Wood and Twist's book. Yet, somehow, the delicacy and mulit-scened illustrations that Sís creates make you feel as if you are lifting flaps and unfolding pages. Sís is clearly well studied on his subject and is masterful at paring down copious amounts of information to fit into a picture book format. He does this with his illustrations, by breaking the pages into various boxes and bubbles and even sometimes mazes, and in his writing by dividing Darwin's life into small chunks. During the time after the Beagle expedition, while he was raising a family with his wife Emma and formulating his theories, Sís divides his text into "Public Life," "Private Life," and "Secret Life" portions to effectively illustrate the potentially explosive nature of the ideas and writings Darwin was producing. Sís even includes excerpts of Darwin's own words, printed in a different font throughout the book.
I wish I had more examples of Sís's illustrations to share, but there is an excellent animated excerpt from The Tree of Life on his website. It takes a special kind of reader, young or old, to appreciate the work that Sís does - it is so out of the ordinary when it comes to children's picture books or adult non-fiction books. I think, however, with the rapidly growing acceptance and popularity of graphic novels in the United States, Sís's work will definitely find new audiences and increased appreciation.