Tuesday, October 23, 2007

The Wall by Peter Sís

Sometimes a book comes along that sends shivers up and down your spine. The Wall by Peter Sís is one of those books.

It's not a typical picture book that draws the eye with flashes of color. The deceptively simple cover has a homemade look that invites you to open it's pages as if it were a child's school project to merely flip through. And yet, once you crack the cover you are immediately transported by the map to Sis' childhood home in Prague, Czechoslovakia. You enter Peter's world at infancy where he is already clutching the implements of the artist in his fists. This is the beginning of Sís' autobiography told as much in his illustrations and design as it is in text which is drawn from both memory and selections from his journals. They tell the story of his life growing up in Czechoslovakia under Soviet rule. Once children went to school, they were told what to draw and encouraged to report on their families. "He didn't question what he was being told.." Sís tells us until "...he found out there were things he wasn't told." There is gradual shift at this point in the illustration style and layout which mirror's Sís' inner growth. Fluidity, color, and themes begin to shine through, to grow and change until they culminate in a psychedelic Beatle-influenced two page spread in the centre of the book. This reflects a time of growth where everything seems possible to the artist.

Then another change takes place. Suddenly, that hope is quashed and Sís' art art shifts again to a mere line drawing followed by a tribute to "The Scream" explicated by simple text that states, "Russian tanks were everywhere." A glimmer of the artist remains in his dreams which he must keep to himself until eventually, he realizes that sharing his artistic vision is the thing that gives him hope. Since only sanctioned art is allowed, a gorilla art form starts to show up on public walls. Artististic freedom is considered an enormous threat though, and the practice is fraught with danger. The story ends, with the fall of the Berlin Wall, and Sís telling us, that "Sometimes dreams come true."

One of the things most powerful about The Wall is that, although Sis is telling his own story, he chose not to tell it from a first person point of view. In fact, he is telling the story of repression of the artistic if not human spirit as well as his own story. Thus he chooses not to end the story with his own escape from behind the Iron Curtain in 1984, but with the Berlin Wall's fall in 1989. If ever there was a picture book for older readers, this is it. If ever there was a picture book that speaks volumes, this is it. If ever there was a picture book that you should read, THIS IS IT!

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