Secular Books for Kids – by Octavia

About the author:

My favourite picture book writer and illustrator of the moment! Peter Sís was born in Brno, in (the now) Czech Republic, in 1949 – and so grew up in the Soviet Bloc, behind the Iron Curtain, with all the oppressive political climate that entails. His picture book The Wall chronicles this time, and the difficulties of keeping artistic freedom and freedom of speech. In 1982, he was sent by the Czech government to Los Angeles for a film project, and when that fell through applied for and received asylum in the United States. Correspondence with Maurice Sendak (famously known for Where the Wild Things Are) led to him getting work with book publishers as an illustrator for children’s books. Sís has won numerous awards for his work since.

While Sís illustrates books written by others, the ones below are some of those he has written and illustrated himself. They texts tend to have the same themes running through them: science and nature, exploration and travel, and the importance of thinking and dreaming for oneself instead of doing or believing as one is told. My two favourites are the science biographies of Galileo and Darwin, but the others are pretty good too.

Peter Sís’ website can be found here.


Starry Messenger: Galileo Galilei

starryThere are three things that immediately stick out as being traits of a Peter Sís book. The first is the absolute intricacy of the illustrations. Every corner is used for the fine brush and pen work, and every corner is filled with the bizarre and the fantastic. The second is the characteristic merger of fantasy and landscape, where the normal is submerged and underlined by what lies beneath (often a truer indicator of events that the surface normality). The third is the often-present dual nature of the text. The main story is told in large, typed text suitable for younger children, while their older siblings can amuse themselves deciphering the handwritten notes that stagger drunkenly across the page, fleshing out the main story as they go.

All these traits are present in Starry Messenger, which traces the story of Galileo from birth to death, and focuses quite strongly on his trial for heresy following the publication of his anti-Biblical astronomical ideas.

The illustrations are simply stunning, and the mirroring between them emphasises Galileo’s singularity. “In the city of Pisa, a little boy was born with stars in his eyes”: his birth is pictured as a little boy swaddled in a star-studded blanket – but this little boy is surrounded by dozens of similarly wrapped children, and each child has pictured on their blanket the role that they will play as adults. Shepherds, priests, cheese-makers… all are individually rendered with as much care as Galileo himself, and this “one among many” motif is continued in the next picture of childhood. Dozens and dozens of children playing with various toys fill a 360° town square, and like Where’s Wally, you have to search for Galileo, who is off by himself playing with stars. Much later a more sinister version of “one among many” has Galileo standing in the centre of dozens and dozens of individually rendered cardinals, who stare down with contempt at him, and at the demonic fantasy creatures that are half-embedded around him, a symbol of his heresy: “He was tried in the Pope’s court, and everyone could see that the stars had left his eyes”.

Be warned that there is one picture of Galileo locked in prison, with the dim ghosts of torture victims filling the walls around him, and if you do not want to have to explain to your child burnings at the stake, hangings, the rack, and other assorted monstrosities then you might want to wait until they’re old enough to take it.

Nevertheless, this is one of the best books out there for getting across the story of Galileo to young children, especially in a freethought context. It doesn’t dwell on what happened to other unfortunates in this situation, and neither does it dwell on Galileo backing down from what he believed in the face of torture and death, but the intelligent child will pick this up regardless. It gives the opportunity to discuss the historical role of the Catholic Church in squashing scientific research and freethought, and the horrible position that many freethinkers faced at the time – as well as the validity of science as a method of (eventually) uncovering the truth about the natural world. I can’t recommend this book highly enough – look at it a dozen times, and you will still find in it things you hadn’t seen before. (Don’t worry if you don’t have kids – get a copy for yourself anyway!)

The Tree of Life: Charles Darwin

treeIf The Starry Messenger was aimed at younger children, The Tree of Life is for those a little bit older. The text is smaller, and there’s a lot more of it. Of course, that means it has a lot more detail packed in it – especially in Sís’ usual mixture of texts. Descriptions are in various fonts (the less obtrusive the more revolutionary) and extracts from Darwin’s journals appear in handwriting for that little touch of verisimilitude.

Despite a sour moment when Darwin appears to insult my country (“I believe we were all glad to leave New Zealand. It is not a pleasant place”) I decided to look the other way, my innate generosity having been touched by the early image of him crammed into a horrible school dormitory, praying with a heap of other (indistinguishable) boys like ants in an ant-hill, and lorded over by a headmaster who boasts “I have never flogged the same boy twice in a week”. I can be nice like that. And he did run away from demonstrations of children being operated upon sans anaesthetic. (Dear old Dad was not impressed at such med. school dilettantism and the only thing missing from his complaint “You care for nothing but shooting, dogs, and rat-catching” is the long-suffering tone, but I am sure that any one of us who has had parents can provide that gratis).

Tree of Life can be divided into three parts: life before Beagle, Darwin’s voyage around the world, and his work (primarily focusing on The Origin of Species) when he returned. The first part is the shortest, and makes use of the technique Sís showed in Starry Messenger – crowds of identical individuals indicating a blindly conformist attitude or society, with the stand-out mind getting the hell out of Dodge. The voyage of the Beagle is covered in more detail. There are maps, a cross-section of the ship, and many drawings of plants, animals, and fossils. The main explanation, though, is done through snippets of Darwin’s journals, where naturalist descriptions and humanist observations are combined with humorous and offbeat remarks (my favourites being “Kill a Chilotan fox with a geological hammer” and “The meat [of land iguanas] when cooked is white. Relished by those whose stomachs rise above all prejudices.” Ha! All is forgiven, Charlie).

The final section is the most informative. Sís takes an interesting tactic by running three separate narratives side by side for several pages – Darwin’s public life, his private life, and his secret life (the latter focusing on his thoughts on evolution, and the development of The Origin of Species). Many of the major figures of the time are introduced, including the oft-relegated and over-nice Alfred Russel Wallace, and Sís does not forget to include the contretemps between Thomas Huxley and a rather bloated Bishop Wilberforce. Science definitely comes out on top!

There’s a lot more humour running through Tree of Life than there is Starry Messenger, but then the threat of torture and execution is missing in this one. Still, it’s a welcome change. I won’t embarrass myself by revealing how many reads it took me to catch the fossilised reconstruction of Mylodon holding the wedding bouquet over Charles and Emma Darwin, but it was quite a few! A reasonable excuse is the wealth of detail in the illustrations. Sís is always so detailed that something new appears in his drawings nearly every time you pick up one of his books. Tree of Life and Starry Messenger are both particularly good examples of this. Every freethinking child should have a copy of these two books on their shelf, and it is to be hoped that Sís will follow them up with the life stories of other famous scientists. (I for one would like to see him do Alfred Wegener or Marie Curie – he’s contactable on his website, so enough requests might persuade him to do it!)

Best of the Rest.

wallAs described above, Sís grew up behind the Iron Curtain in Communist Czechoslovakia. As a child, he wore the Young Pioneer’s Red Scarf and stood guard in front of a giant statue of Stalin. In the late 1960s, however, when Sís was an adolescent, input from the outside world began to seep through into his previously closed world, bringing with it illicit books, Coca-Cola, blue jeans, rock bands, and long hair. In the Prague Spring of 1968, however, this brief glimpse at a life of freedom (especially, for the young artist, artistic freedom) was brough to a close when the Soviet Union invaded the country to bring a halt to its political liberalisation. Sís uses all his usual tricks (imaginary landscapes, journal entries, and maps) to trace his own development as an artist. Black and white illustrations change to colour (the scene of youths doggedly painting a wall, despite official harrassment, is a powerful one), and illustrate the growing influence of the West.

The faces of the government officials, transformed into pigs, is reminiscent of Animal Farm, and the journal entries are fascinating reading – they chronicle Sis’ growing awareness of the enforced political and artistic conformity of his life, with shades of Orwell’s other major fiction, Nineteen Eighty-Four: “There is a story in our schoolbook about a Russian man who is a class enemy. He hides his wheat harvest in his cellar instead of giving it to the village cooperative. His son, who is a Young Pioneer, finds out and reports it. The family kills the boy. His name is Pavka Morozov. He is a hero. We are told that if we see our parents doing wrong, we should report them”. History via picture book – it’s fasinating and informative: the little beggars won’t know they’re learning.

keysThe mythological Prague of Sís’ childhood is recreated in The Three Golden Keys. Written for his daughter Madeleine (she reappears in the Madlenka series), Sis and his hot air balloon get sent off course and he ends up in the Prague of some decades back – apparently deserted but for weird shapes wandering the streets. (They’re not even the same shapes – note the subtle picture to picture changes in his old house.) To unlock his childhood home, Sis needs three golden keys, and he traipses round Prague while being delivered dual shots of key and legend. Three of the historical tales of Prague are included as little stories of their own within the picture book – the legend of the Golem, Prince Bruncvik, and clockmaker Hanus. The pictures as are beautiful, as usual, and anyone who has spent any time at Prague will be picking out bits of it that they know and recognise in the drawings. It doesn’t have the emotional punch of The Wall, but it is a nice little semi-anthology for younger children, before starting them on life behind the Iron Curtain.

tibetA particular aspect of Sís’ childhood is explored in Tibet: Through the Red Box. His film-maker father having been sent by Soviet Union to teach documentary film-making in China, became lost and spent fourteen months wandering through Tibet. He kept a diary of his journey, and when he returned it was too a son who had fallen very ill and was confined to bed. Sís recalls the stories his father told him, and these intersperse the diary entries that tell part of the story. Initially, a third narrative device of inserting the child Peter’s experience of colour (for instance: “Red was the color of my youth – red flags, red stars, red tulips, blood…”) seems obtrusive and jarring, but it ties together in the end with his father’s experiences in the Tibetan palace of Potala. The illustrations differ from Sís’ usual, drawing on Tibetan themes (especially the mandala) rather than his usual Eastern European roots.

smalltaleA Small Tall Tale From the Far Far North is a retelling of a Czech folk legend – a man called Jan Welzl who escaped the harshness of Eastern European life in the late 1800s for even greater hardship: thirty years spent travelling in “dreadful privation and suffering” [Welzl’s own words] in Siberia, Alaska, and Northern Canada. This is obviously too great a story to be condensed into a child’s picture books, so Sís sensibly gives a summary of Welzl’s life in a prologue and epilogue, using the bulk of the book to provide snapshots of his life. Sís’ trademark fantasy landscapes are on full show here – dynamited caves have great, leering grins, half-submerged monsters peek out from tiny pools, a traditional Eskimo tale is incorporated into the shape of a whale… The sheer amount of fine detail packed into each of the illustrations is amazing, and absolutely typical of Sís. It’s a delightful accompaniment to the story of a man who decided to strike out on his own path.

madlenkaMadlenka tells the story of a little girl who is so excited about her loose tooth that she must tell all her friends and neighbours. These come from all corners of the globe, so Madlenka’s trip around her neighbourhood block is a world tour in miniature. Alright, the neighbours are complete stereotypes (the French baker, the Indian newsagent, Latin American greengrocer…) but that’s more than made up for by Sís’ continuing run of brilliant illustrations, complete with keyholes, 360° panoramas, and fantasy-intruding-on-real-life illustrations (check out the animal trees on the African savannah – especially the giraffe-tree, which has Madlenka’s school friend hiding between its legs) and the German opera-come-folk tale, complete with a bewigged swordsman being shot out of a cannon.

madsdogAll these characters return in Madlenka’s Dog, where Madlenka, who is desperate for a dog of her own, has to make do with an imaginary one. So she puts a leash on it and wanders round the neighbourhood, just as she did when her tooth was loose. Sís again uses his 360° panoramas and keyholes, but this time introduces pop-up flaps as well – when Madlenka meets her neighbours and introduces them to her invisible dog, these flaps reveal the neighbours as they were as children, with their own dogs – all types and breeds. The fantasy perspective is less present than in the previous book, although when Madlenka meets her school-friend Cleopatra, who has an imaginary horse, the two of them escape into several pages of make believe, with dogs and horses popping up in all sorts of strange places.

komodoThe fascination with animals (and their discovery in strange places) continues in Komodo! where the parents of a little boy obsessed with dragons (and very amiable parents they are too – check out the living room wallpaper!) take him to Indonesia to check out the famous Komodo dragon. This book is for younger children, and the otherwise ubiquitous handwritten notes don’t appear here – although there is quite a sophisticated snark at eco-tourism, as the Komodo dragon hides from the hordes of people descending on his island and expecting him to perform for them. The little boy decides that following the crowds around isn’t for him, and wanders off on his own. Naturally this independence of mind is rewarded when he sees a Komodo dragon and they do not, although the ending I was hoping for (boy gets eaten when assuming wild creature is friendly) did not actually occur. The kid is clever and independent, but we all know that in real life he’s up for the Darwin Award… Personally, this is least interesting of the Peter Sís books I know, but if your kid is into strange beasts and Where’s Wally (the crowd scenes reoccur frequently, and you’ll have to search to find the protagonist) then it might be worth getting a copy.


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