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Tarrytown Resident Finds Art in Children's Books

TARRYTOWN, N.Y. – Tarrytown resident Peter Sis found a passion for illustrating and writing children's books almost by accident about 30 years ago.

Today he says he has come to appreciate the power a book can have in a child's life.

“I like the idea that I can maybe participate in some educational happiness,” Sis said.

Sis has authored and collaborated on more than 20 books. In 2003, he was named a MacArthur Fellow. He lives on the Tarrytown side of the border with Irvington. He has a small studio in his home and another studio in Manhattan.

Sis was recently awarded the Hans Christian Andersen Award , which is given biennially to one author and one illustrator “whose complete works are judged to have made lasting contributions to children's literature.” Sis was one of 30 nominated for the award and five short-listed.

“It's like a dream,” Sis said, noting that while the award is big in Europe, nobody except librarians and bookworms know about it in the United States. “I'm very happy about it, but it's like did it really happen?”

Sis emigrated from Czechoslovakia about 30 years ago to work in Los Angeles on a film for Czechoslovakia for the 1984 Winter Olympics and later on a project for MTV. When Czechoslovakia and the Soviet Union decided to boycott the Olympic Games, Sis said he received a cable to “immediately drop everything and go back.”

“I didn't know what to do because I had these films to finish,” Sis said. “I knew if I didn't return when they told me, I might be in big trouble. I might be going to prison.”

Sis formed a plan: he'd finish the projects, which would be huge successes. Then he could explain why he was late in coming back to his country. But his plan failed when nobody liked his work.

“It was a terrible time,” Sis said. “Nobody wanted to make my films or anything.”

Sis later met a woman at a municipal art gallery who sent some of his work to children's author Maurice Sendak. Sendak liked what he saw, Sis said, and advised him to move to the East Coast where the work was. Sis designed the poster for the movie “Amadeus,” which gave him enough money to buy an old car and drive it to New York.

Sis worked as an illustrator for several publications such as the New York Times and The Atlantic to pay the rent while he tried to break into the children's book world.

Several of Sis' books were inspired by his two kids and their experiences. They helped him understand American culture, he added, because he knew nothing about baseball and pizza and similar things.

Now that they're more grown up, he chooses subjects involving his life and how he left home for a new country. Sis believes kids need happy books, but they also need books to learn that life isn't always easy.

Sis also doesn't plan on retiring soon.

“I think I will be drawing forever and I probably will be doing some sort of books, films, new media,” Sis said.

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