Children's book author and illustrator Peter Sís takes grand adventures on the page. He's done books about Galileo, Charles Darwin, Christopher Columbus — and now, he's turned his pen and brush to the life of the French writer Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, best known for his book The Little Prince.
Saint-Exupéry was also famous as a pioneering aviator who wrote several adult books on the theme of flight. But after he disappeared during a reconnaissance mission over southern France in 1944, it was The Little Prince that lived on after him.
In The Pilot and the Little Prince, Sís renders Saint-Exupéry's life in gorgeously pointillist watercolors. He tells NPR's Melissa Block that his father gave him his first copy of The Little Prince when he was a child in Czechoslovakia. "I was very impressed. I thought, it's a beautiful book which is about how beautiful life will be."
On Saint-Exupéry's childhood desire to fly
There is a story that he was so obsessed with flying that he put these wicker rods with sheaths on his bicycle and was trying to fly — that he asked the local carpenter to build him like, a ramp. ... And nobody says how badly he crashed, they just say he didn't take off.
On his career as a mail pilot
So that was the most romantic, because he wants to be a pilot, he delivers mail, he goes to Spain, and then he goes to North Africa, and then he crosses the Atlantic and comes to South America. But I think I also like the idea that I found all these little vignettes about his life — it seemed like he always crashed, and then he somehow put himself together. He limped away ... and then he flew again, so I sort of admired that quality, because till the end of his life he would always pull himself together and keep on flying.
On Saint-Exupéry writing his books while in flight
This is amazing, because he was continuing doing that even when the airplanes were getting more sophisticated. So he was amazingly obsessed with his writing and reading, which I think was easy, early when the planes were flying very slowly, and then it got more difficult towards the war.
On his own experience reading The Little Prince
[As a child] I read it as something which is about a beautiful place I can go, about a world which I might discover, about things which are impossible, and I might be able to accomplish them. It was this book full of promise. And then, just in the time when I came to America and I was asked to go back, or should I stay, I read The Little Prince again, and I realized it's a book about courage, because the pilot's surviving in the desert, so it gave me lots of hope. And then I read the book when I had little children ... and all of a sudden it was profoundly sort of sentimental and sad. And I realized it's like one of those books which goes with you the whole life.