An Unexpected Path to Greenwillow
By Peter Sis
It’s 1982, I’ve come to Los Angeles from Czechoslovakia to make animated films for the Olympic Games and for Bob Dylan. But both projects get canceled. I don’t dare go back behind the Iron Curtain. And nobody wants my film ideas.
Luckily, I met a director of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Josine Ianco Starells. (I dedicated The Dragons Are Singing Tonight to her.) Josine exhibited my art and got me a job at Otis-Parsons School of Art. She also sent copies of my art to Maurice Sendak. I still do not know how she did this, so when Maurice called me, I was surprised! I knew his name, of course, but I had never pictured myself in children’s books. We talked a long time, and he told me he would call again.
. . . And he did–when he was in LA. We met downtown so that Maurice could take a look at my portfolio. I felt terribly awkward (as he recalls in the letter he sent me afterward). But even so, he told me, “There’s a big convention in LA right now. I’ll give you the name of someone who will introduce you to the good editors who are left.” That name was Bill Morris. Keep in mind that this was before cell phones, so this is a lot of work, with little slips of paper . . . and I don’t speak English well!
Bill took me to see three people: Liz Gordon, but she was busy; Walter Lorraine, who asked me if I was planning to move to Boston (I wasn’t); and Susan Hirschman, who was also busy, as everyone at conventions always is. But I stood nearby Susan, and a nice lady started talking to me. Eventually she said, “You have a strange accent.” So I said, “I am Czech.” And she said, “That’s where I am from!” It was Ava Weiss, art director of Greenwillow. Finally, she looked at my portfolio, and she said, “We have some work for you.”
That was Bean Boy by George Shannon.
My bio in Bean Boy says “Peter Sis lives in Santa Monica,” but even Greenwillow asked, “But surely . . . you will move to New York.” And I did. My second book happened when Susan asked me, “Would you like to make some rent money?” That was The Whipping Boy by Sid Fleischman.
Peter Sis is an internationally acclaimed author, artist, and filmmaker. Among his works are Fire Truck, Ballerina, Trucks, Trucks, Trucks, and The Train of States. He also illustrated many books by Sid Fleischman, including the Newbery Medal-winning The Whipping Boy, and most recently, The Dream Stealer. He lives with his family in New York State.