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Tibet Through the Red Box (Caldecott Honor Book) Hardcover – November 5, 1998
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As a child in 1950s Czechoslovakia, Caldecott Honor-winning artist Peter Sís would listen to mysterious tales of Tibet, "the roof of the world." The narrator, oddly enough, was his father--a documentary filmmaker who had been separated from his crew, caught in a blizzard, and (according to him, anyway) nursed back to health by gentle Yetis. Young Sís learned of a beautiful land of miracles and monks beset by a hostile China; of the 14th Dalai Lama, a "Boy-God-King"; and of "a magic palace with a thousand rooms--a room for every emotion and heart's desire." Hearing these accounts--some extravagant but all moving--helped the boy recover from an accident. The stories also allowed Sís's father to relate an odyssey other adults didn't seem to want to know about in cold war Czechoslovakia. "He told me, over and over again, his magical stories of Tibet, for that is where he had been. And I believed everything he said," Sís recalls. Still, after some time he too seemed to become immune, and the stories "faded to a hazy dream." With Tibet: Through the Red Box Sís finally pays tribute to this fantastical experience, illustrating key pages from his father's diary with complex, color-rich images of mazes, mountains, and mandalas. He also produces pictures of his family at home--simple, monochromatic images that are just as haunting as their Himalayan counterparts. In one, a wistful mother and two children gather around a Christmas tree, the absent father appearing as a featureless silhouette. Tibet is a treasure for the eyes and heart. Some will ask: Is it for children or adults? Others will wonder: Is it a work of art or a storybook? One of the many things that this book makes us realize is that such classifications are entirely (and happily) unnecessary. (Click to see a sample spread. Illustrations copyright ©1998 by Peter Sís. Reprinted by permission of Farrar, Straus, & Giroux.) --Kerry Fried
From Publishers Weekly
In this visually enticing, magically appealing, oversized volume, Czechoslovakian-born illustrator Sis applies his considerable gifts to painting a spellbinding portrait of his father's experiences in Tibet, where he was sent in the 1950s to instruct the Chinese in documentary filmmaking. Vladimir Sis was actually drafted by the Chinese government to record the construction of a highway from China into Tibet; he was to be gone more than two years, unable to communicate with his family. During that time, China invaded the neighboring country, and Sis senior witnessed events he dared not describe even after he returned home, except through "magical stories" he related to his son. The diary he kept during his sojourn in Tibet was locked in a red box, which his son only saw for the first time in 1994, when he received a cryptic message from his father: "The diary is now yours." Here Sis re-creates a facsimile of the diary with excerpts handwritten upon parchment-like backgrounds on double-page spreads brimming with pencil sketches of the events described (e.g., "The road looks like a cut into a beautiful cake"). He then magnifies the more uncanny aspects of the journal via the tales told to him by his father, recollected from childhood, which are printed on the succeeding spread. One entry describes a boy wearing bells who tracks down the filmmaker in the middle of nowhere to deliver a letter from his family; Sis then follows with "The Jingle-Bell Boy," festooning the account with a trail of rhododendron-leaf markings that lead his father ultimately to the Dalai Lama. The guileless prose of both father and son makes Sis's juxtaposition of the journal records with his own childhood memories all the more poignant. The luminous colors of the artwork, the panoramas of Tibetan topography and the meticulous intermingling of captivating details and the mystical aspects of Tibetan culture make this an extraordinary volume that will appeal to readers of all ages. Author tour.
Copyright 1998 Reed Business Information, Inc.
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Top Customer Reviews
Tibet is very like Maus: A Survivor's Tale, the award-winning graphic novel that bears only superficial resemblance to a standard graphic novel. In Tibet, as in Maus, a son tells his father's story - and what a story it is. Peter Sis' father was a documentary filmmaker who was hired by the Chinese to make a documentary about the building of a bridge in a remote province - and instead ended up losing his crew and witnessing the taking of Tibet.
Sis does a remarkable job of transmitting to the reader his father's love of Tibet and its mysteries and magic. Using tales his father told him, he creates an image of a dream land, a fantasy land, where weird and wonderful things happen. It's impossible not to love Sis' vision of Tibet - and therefore, impossible not to be sad that the Chinese take it.
I've said that the book is not for children, and I stand by that. However, I do believe that a child who is 6 or older could enjoy this book, provided it was read to him by an adult, and provided that that adult could cushion and explain some of the harder truths, not to mention some of the blending of fantasy and fact.
Peter Sis' father's story is incredible, and the book is marvelous. Any adult who loves books or history would love Tibet: Through the Red Box.
In 1994 Peter Sis received a note from his father that said merely, "The Red Box is now yours". Rushing home, Sis found the box in question and opened it to reveal a diary kept by his father of his time in Tibet in the mid-1950s. Sis the elder was a documentary filmmaker, and as such he was sent by the army film unit to China to make and teach filmmaking. The job was supposed to be about the Chinese highway currently being built in the Himalayas that would open Tibet up to the rest of the world. While there, Sis was separated from his project and explored the world of Tibet deeper than (he suspected) any Czech citizen before him. In this book, Peter Sis takes sections from this diary and illustrates them with his signature dotty style. Interspersed with his father's written recollections, Peter includes his own childhood memories of the fantastical elements of the trip his father would tell him. There were Yetis that cared for him while sick, and lakes filled with fish that had human faces. The final meeting with the Boy-God-King, the Dali Lama himself, is expressed with riveting finesse.
Back we go to that old question that comes up whenever a picture book doesn't fall strictly into a set category: Is it a book for adults or for kids? Which is to say, will kids want to read it, or get anything out of it if they do? And the answer, of course, isn't all that simple. As many of the reviews for this book already state, there are multiple uses for this title. Readers vary from reluctant teens to awe-struck ten-year-olds. What I've always loved about Sis's work is his ability to write something meaningful for people of all ages. So on the one hand you have a fun story about a father seeing fantastical things (it's no coincidence that Sis chooses to include a quote about Marco Polo at the end) and on the other hand you've a complex story of a son trying to figure out who his father is and at what price a world can be utterly destroyed.
When I saw Sis speak, he made a self-deprecating statement that I've been turning over in my mind ever since. Sis said that when he was first trying to get jobs, he though the best way to distinguish himself from everyone else was to draw using millions of tiny dots. In retrospect, he realized this wasn't such a bright idea. For while the dot style was unique and much sought after, it meant he had to spend countless hours dotting and redotting his books. "Tibet" is dot-o-licious, this is true. And while not quite as insanely detailed as the aforementioned, "Tree of Life", it still an eye-popping wonder. My favorite section however, chronicled the father's trip through the magic palace of Potala, where every room is different. There's a red room that is "sunrise and sunset, heart of time" and a green room that is "square and circular, ear of earth". At this point the book begins to resemble nothing so much as the book, "Maze" by Christopher Manson. If you're a fan of crazy rooms leading nowhere at all, check out that book as well.
Don't pick up "Tibet: Through the Red Box" if you're looking for some light picture book fare. That is the number one wrong way to approach this kind of material. Instead, fix yourself a hot cup of tea, snuggle on a comfy couch with a child or adult that you love, and page through the remarkable and touching story of one man's ode to his father. We should all be so lucky to have done so much, lived so well, and be remembered in such an evocative way.