Peter Sís is an acclaimed author and illustrator who is well known for his picture book biographies, including Starry Messenger, The Tree of Life and The Pilot and the Little Prince. In Nicky & Vera: A Quiet Hero of the Holocaust and the Children He Rescued, he movingly intertwines the lives of Nicholas Winton, a young Englishman who helped arrange train passage for hundreds of Jewish children out of Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia in the late 1930s, and Vera Diamantova, one of the children Winton saved.
You’ve created a number of picture book biographies. What draws you to this category of nonfiction? How do you approach the creative process differently when you’re working on a nonfiction project versus something fictional?
I have liked biographies ever since I was a child. The explorers, the adventurers, the dreamers. Only later was I drawn to stories of people struggling to advance humanity—Vincent Van Gogh, Marie Curie.
Creating nonfiction requires a lot of research, and it’s sometimes difficult to distribute that throughout the book (for example, Charles Darwin went around the world and then stayed home for 50 years). In my new book, both Nicky and Vera experience a traumatic event and then, again, live their lives peacefully for 50 years. But perhaps that is the rhythm of life; each project, just like poetry, has its own tempo.
Did you consider intertwining Winton’s story with the story of a different child? What made you decide to feature Vera Diamantova in the book?
Vera’s book, Pearls of Childhood, was a surprising source of inspiration for how to tell the story of Nicholas Winton, which I had been thinking about for quite some time. Vera, with her love of life, her family, her country, was a representation of the 669 children Winton saved. She was saved, but her family perished. She was able to meet the man who saved her. I knew it was the way to go.
I think we all know what heroism is—we just have to think about it.
In the book, you describe how Winton did not speak about what he had done during the war because he believed no one would be interested in the story. As you worked on the book, did you gain an understanding of why Winton would have believed such a thing?
It’s difficult to say. In her book, Winton’s daughter Barbara writes that he was that kind of man. He said, “If you can swim and you walk by the river and someone is drowning—of course you save that person. It is your duty.” That is one way to think about what he did. It is also possible that he was devastated that the last train, which carried 250 children, did not make it. Once WWII broke out, there was nothing more to say.
You have said that there is always a “dark, impossible moment in every project,” and that it feels good to solve it. Was there such a moment in the process of creating Nicky & Vera?
Oh, there were plenty of crossroads with this project. At one point, I had Vera’s and Nicky’s lives after the war mirroring each other. There would be a half page of Vera’s house, half page Nicky’s. They both had families, so in this draft, they might walk in the same street next to each other, not knowing what connects them. That was intriguing, but it was for a different book. It was hard to let it go.
Another really dark moment was when I read many books about children and the Holocaust—the darkness and sadness of it all, and thinking about how to mention it in the book. I have to be grateful to Simon Boughton, my editor, for keeping us focused.
Can you talk about how you compose a spread? What drives your initial choices? How do you balance detail, composition and clarity?
I always get one or two images stuck in my head when I start to work on a project. Like Galileo in the court of cardinals in my book Starry Messenger, or the whirling train from Prague to London in Nicky & Vera. This is not necessarily helpful in case you need to shift or reshape the story, because it becomes the unmovable object of sorts. My artistic choices are driven by my ability, my intuition and stubbornness. I wish I could say clarity.
What is your favorite illustration in Nicky & Vera? Why?
I think that coiled train from Prague to London. It is my favorite cobalt blue hue, and the Prague-to-London train was a wishful dream when I was growing up behind the Iron Curtain.
ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our starred review of Nicky & Vera.
Nicky & Vera depicts moments of intense horror that are representations of actual historical events. How do you care for yourself when working on a book that depicts such darkness?
This is a very good point. I did not think about this cloud of darkness. I reread Anne Frank and other books on the Shoah. I watched films about Simone Veil and Theresienstadt. Once again, I wondered how and why this could have happened, and that made me appreciate Nicky even more.
This is a story about heroism, about who we call heroes and what heroism really is. What do you believe heroism is? Did working on Nicky & Vera change it?
Yes, it is about heroism in a very human way. I think we all know what heroism is—we just have to think about it. It is solidarity, empathy, kindness—quiet acts in our time of very loud proclamations. It makes me think about times I could have done something and just did not dare to think differently.
Photo of Peter Sís courtesy of Jan Slavík © DOX Centre for Contemporary Art.