JUNE 17:

  • Happy birthday Marie-Louise Gay (Stella series).
  • It’s the birth date of James Weldon Johnson (1871-1938), The Creation, and Robbie Branscum (1937-1997), The Murder of Hound Dog Bates.
  • It’s National Flip Flop Day (in reference to the warm weather footwear, not perceived indecision). Read Flip-Flops by Nancy Cote and Flip-Flop Girl by Katherine Paterson.
  • It’s also Eat Your Vegetables Day (perhaps a follow up to yesterday’s Fresh Veggies Day). Read The Ugly Vegetables by Grace Lin, Growing Vegetable Soup by Lois Ehlert, Vegetable Garden by Douglas Florian, and The Vegetables We Eat by Gail Gibbons.

On June 17, 1969, in Prague, Czechoslovakia, ten months after the Soviet Union invaded the city with tanks, the Beach Boys gave a concert in Lucerna Hall. Although police with dogs waited nearby, in this dark time the American band provided “a glimmer of hope.”

Peter Sís, recipient of a MacArthur genius grant, captured these events, the history of his native country, and his own journey as an artist in the 2007 title The Wall: Growing Up Behind the Iron Curtain. Both a Caldecott Honor book and winner of the Sibert Award, this incredible book begins with endpapers showing the map of the world, filled in with red to indicate Communist countries. As Sís tells us in his introduction, he was born at the beginning of the Cold War, “on the Red side—the Communist side—of the Iron Curtain.” The first picture is of a baby, with pen and pencil in hand, with the caption “As long as he could remember, he had loved to draw.”

In intricate black-and-white sketches, occasionally marked with red, Sís shows his development as a child and an artist, as well as what life was like for those who lived in Czechslovakia. Some of the incidents, like collecting scrap metal, would not have been experienced by American children during this period. Others, like hiding under the desk in preparation for a nuclear attack, happened in the U.S. as well. Sís grows up to be an adolescent when “everything from the West seems colorful and desirable.” He loved American music and he and his friends made their own electric guitars. In the spring of 1968, everything seemed possible under the new, enlightened leadership of Alexander Dubek. Then the Soviet tanks invaded, and Sís found that the content of his drawings could be used against him. But as the book ends, “Sometimes dreams come true. On November 9, 1989, the wall fell.” Artist and filmmaker Peter Sís found his way to America, made a home here, and eventually earned millions of adoring fans for his drawings and his books.

This extraordinary book presents a social study lesson of the Cold War in forty-eight pages. A superb book trailer makes the perfect introduction to the book as it combines actual video footage from the time period with drawings from The Wall. Any student from fourth grade through high school who wants to understand not only the events of the Cold War but the emotional effect of growing up behind the Iron Curtain can do no better than begin their reading here.

Even in the United States, Peter SĂ­s has followed his own direction and vision by creating illustrated books that work for a wide range of readers. After picking up The Wall, those who did not know his struggle will simply be grateful, as I have always been, that he persevered in what he wanted to do. Although the events that he describes took place in Europe years ago, they remind us to fight against censorship, in all of its forms, here and now in America.

Here’s a page from The Wall:


Originally posted June 17, 2011. Updated for .

Tags: Autobiography, Award Winning, Caldecott, Cold War, History, Sibert
Instructional materials from TeachingBooks.net for The Wall


  1. suzi w. says:

    Peter Sis is one of my favorite illustrators. I haven’t read this book yet, but will be putting it on my booklist for “Europe books” for this year’s summer reading theme “One World, Many Stories.”

    I used Komodo in storytime when I was a children’s bookseller at Barnes & Noble in the mid 90s. And when The Three Golden Keys came out, I gave it to my father for Christmas, because it was in Prague that my father decided to not go to law school, but instead to graduate school with the hopes of an international job. In 1969, he started working for the State Department, giving his (to be) three children a key to the world before they were 10.

    I heard him speak at the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh and he spoke so much about his daughter Madlenka as his reason for writing.

    Your almanac always brings up memories…thank you.

  2. Anita says:

    Suzi: Thanks for these comments. He is such an amazing creator, each book so unique.

  3. Gail Terp says:

    Thanks – I didn’t know about this book. I’m off to the library to get it!

  4. Amy Cherrix says:

    This work’s relevance is sobering, considering recent world events. I’ve read it many times and never fail to discover something new in those intricate illustrations. Thanks for choosing this one, Anita!

  5. Erica S. says:

    I’m a little delayed in posting, but I was so moved by this book when I picked it up last semester. I spent a semester studying abroad in Prague, and there are some details of the city that Sis captures so perfectly. There’s even a photograph I took that I have hanging in my room that looks exactly like one of Sis’s illustrations. Sis is both a master of detail and of giving meaning to such large, complicated issues.

  6. G.Perry says:

    All I can say is I have to read this one.

  7. P.Sis says:

    Thank you for reminding me Anita,
    I was a popular D.J.then and M.C. Of the Beach Boys concert
    “Ladies and Gentlemen here they are from California USA ….The Beach Boys….”
    little I knew I would be using it in a book one day
    /the picture of me as the M.C.is on the back flap of the book/
    I appreciate it
    Peter Sis

  8. Anita says:

    Peter: You have so many talents that we don’t know about. I’m sure you were a fabulous D.J. But you are an even greater creator of books!

  9. Shelly says:

    I love Mr. Sis’s illustrations in The Dreamer by Pam Munoz Ryan. I am very excited to have more of his work to explore!

Leave a Comment

Daily children’s book recommendations and events from Anita Silvey.

Discover the stories behind the children’s book classics . . .

The new books on their way to becoming classics . . .

And events from the world of children’s books—and the world at large.