Author Interviews
3:18 pm
Wed June 11, 2014

In The Cockpit, Gazing At Stars: Saint-Exupéry's Life In Pictures

Originally published on Thu June 12, 2014 3:20 pm

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."


Interview Highlights

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.

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Transcript

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From NPR News this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm on a Audie Cornish.

MELISSA BLOCK, BYLINE: And I'm Melissa Block. The children's book author and illustrator Peter Sis takes grand adventures on the page. He's written and illustrated 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-Exupery. Best known for his book "The Little Prince" He was also famous as a pioneering aviator in the early 1900s. Peter Sis joins me here in the studio to talk about his book titled "The pilot and the Little Prince." Peter welcome back to the program.

PETER SIS: Nice to be here.

BLOCK: Let's talk about the cover here. We see an open cockpit biplane flying over the globe and there's Saint-Exupery, the pilot with his scarf and his aviator goggles, and then sitting behind him a boy with blond hair.

SIS: So it's like him because it's the pilot when he was a little boy but it's also a little prince, it's also me and my father and wants this to be a little bit of the blue from the cover of Little Prince. So it’s like combination of many things about adventure and also the beauty of the blue sky and freedom.

BLOCK: You say you see you and your father in here.

SIS: Well I think with little prince for me is that if it wouldn't be for my father I wouldn't know about Little Prince. He gave me the first book of "Little Prince" at age 12.

BLOCK: Home in Czechoslovakia.

SIS: Yeah and it was in Prague and I know he was like tapping on the book and he said this is a special book so I knew I have to special read it.

BLOCK: In your book, Peter Sis we see Saint-Exupery at age 12 and he is riding a bicycle that he has ridged with wings.

SIS: So there is this story that he was so obsessed with flying that at age 12 he put these wicker rods with the sheets on his bicycle and was trying to fly. That he asked the local carpenter to build him like a ramp.

BLOCK: Wicker rods.

SIS: Yes, but nobody says how badly he crashed they just say he didn't take off.

BLOCK: He didn't fly.

SIS: Yes.

BLOCK: Well in your book we learn that Saint-Exupery does learn to fly with the French military and then he learns about something new, which is an airline that would deliver the mail. And he, and that's where he gets gone. He flies to Europe and then Africa and South America as a mail pilot. And writing books based on those adventures along the well.

SIS: So there's like 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 ideas that I found all these little vignettes about his life. It seemed like he always crashed and then he somehow put himself together.

BLOCK: His planes crashed but he was able...

SIS: He was always crashing.

BLOCK: But he walked away or limped away.

SIS: He limped away. He was sort of hardly able to get into the cockpit 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.

BLOCK: Well along with these full-page, two- page pieces of artwork you also included a lot of tiny drawings captioned with little bits of interest about Saint-Exupery's life. Here are a few of them, he was 6' 2" and had a hard time fitting in the cockpit. Also that he would read and write while flying. He was actually working on his books in the cockpit of these planes which is such an amazing thing to think about

SIS: This was amazing because he continued doing that even when the planes were getting more sophisticated. So he was amazingly obsessed with his writing and reading. Which I think it was easier when the planes were flying very slowly and then it got more difficult towards the war.

BLOCK: Your illustrations throughout the book Peter are really detailed. A lot of pointillist drawings, very lush blue washes of watercolor that show the sea and the sky and then we come to this two- page spread. It's World War II and it's a totally look on these pages. There are big bright red splotches of color, airplanes, bombs flying, a row of German tanks. A totally different feeling on these two pages

SIS: I wanted something really different because the war is so awful and I didn't want to have like broken trees and houses which are falling apart. So this is for me what Saint-Exupery must've seen from the skies when he was watching the German Panzer Army coming down to France for Belgium.

BLOCK: Saint-Exupery leaves Nazi occupied France comes to New York in 1940. And it's in New York that he actually writes "The Little Prince" which I never knew. I never knew he would here.

SIS: Aww, that was my secret.

BLOCK: Do you remember when you read that book as a child? Do remember the impression that it made on your?

SIS: Yeah because It had no illustration but I read 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 just a book full of promise, and then I read a book when I had little children because I said you have to read this book and I was reading this book to them. And all of a sudden it was profoundly sort of sentimental and sad. And I realize it's like one of those books which goes with you the whole life and you can like end at different parts of your life through this. It's an amazing book in that sense. It can be happy and be also very sad.

BLOCK: Let's talk about the last image in your book. So it's 1944.

SIS: Right.

BLOCK: Saint-Exupery is back in Europe he's rejoined the war and he disappears in flight mysteriously. Why don't you describe the image of how you capture the end?

SIS: Well, Saint-Exupery is really flying in his airplane over the house, over the place he grew up as a little boy. And D-Day already took place. He's flying home, he knows he probably would be coming home soon. And he disappears that day. And there are lots of theories about him being shot down or about him falling into the sea. So there are all of these theories but I didn't want to end up with him being down or being defeated. Just like all of his books I wanted him to keep on flying in this blue. And somehow I remember that there's a whole theory that people who fly say you can get lost between the sky and between the ocean and he sort of vanishes in the blue.

BLOCK: This is kind of - this is a combination airplane and bicycle put together. He's riding the bike and somehow it's powering the airplane?

SIS: It's very absurd yes. Somehow writing on the bicycle in the air is also the symbol of freedom.

BLOCK: And it's a beautiful turquoise background and up in the upper right corner there's a very bright star.

SIS: Yes, that was like supposed to be the little planet star, under the stars for maybe little prince lives. But it's also little planet for grown up Saint-Exupery who's trying to go back to his childhood and be little boy who's playing under the trees again.

BLOCK: Peter Sis thanks again for coming in.

SIS: Thank you.

BLOCK: Peter Sis's book is "The Pilot and the Little Prince: The Life of Antoine de Saint-Exupery." You can see the imaginative illustrations of Peter Sis at NPR.org and on our ALL THINGS CONSIDERED Facebook page where you can also share your memories of the Little Prince. You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.