An interview with Miroslav Sasek (1969)

"Janet Schulman, Macmillan's Marketing Manager, called me to say, "Guess who's in New York City? Miroslav Sasek! (meer oh slahf sah sek). He'll be here for a few weeks before returning to Munich, Germany!"

I immediately telephoned the Roger Williams Hotel in mid-town Manhattan and made an appointment to see him. When I arrived, Mr. Sasek was waiting for me in the lobby. "Would you like to see some pictures of Washington, D. C.?" he asked with his European accent. "Come up to the room!"

The first thing one notices about Mr. Sasek is his European manner. Despite his age, he is thin, well-tailored, and as bubbly as a glass of the best French champagne. Born in Prague, Czechoslovakia, he was forced to leave that country when the Communists seized power after World War II. He became a resident of Paris, France. "I'm at home in Paris," he stated, "I love it! I live in Munich now because my wife's work is there."

It is no wonder that This Is Paris (1959) was the first of his series of charming, pictorial oversize books (all published by Macmillan). In them he records impressions of the great cities of the world with his keen eye and his gay sense of humor and satire. "I originally wanted to do a series of three books -- Paris, Rome, and London. I never though it would go on and on."

His travels have been worldwide. To prepare a book in his series Mr. Sasek explained, "I come to a place like New York, for example, that I have never visited before in my life. I begin by going to see the things I've heard about or read about --the monuments, the landmarks, and particular places of interest. One thing leads to another until the book is completed. All I really do is run from my hotel to someplace and then back to the hotel!"

Mr. Sasek showed me how he works. He roughly sketches what he sees on a small white pad, adding detail after detail until he has a finished picture. All over the sketches he jots down notes on the colors of buses, the letters in signs, costumes of the people and even fire hydrants; the notes may be written in French, German, or Czechoslovakian, whichever language first comes into his mind. "Detail is very important to children," he commented. "If I paint 53 windows instead of 54 in a building, a deluge of letters pours in upon me! Children today know everything -- the world is much smaller. I remember returning home to Munich after finishing This Is Cape Kennedy (1964). My son looked at my sketchbooks and without a word from me he mentioned that this is the Apollo rocket and this is the launching pad and this is...I could not believe it! Sometimes I cannot believe the children of today. When I was a youngster, no one traveled. And this is why the most simple detail is most important."

After a sketch is completed to his satisfaction, Mr. Sasek goes to his hotel room and begins to draw, rarely waiting more than an hour or two before beginning the final picture that will appear in his finished book. Besides writing the text and doing the illustrations, he completely designs and prepares the layout for his books. When he is finished, the book is ready to go to press, with few or no changes necessary.

Mr. Sasek had just finished This Is Washington, D.C., (1969). The book was carefully resting on a table -- big and beautiful, fun and exciting. Unfortunately, he chose a poor time to visit our nation's capital, for while working there the looting and rioting that followed the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. occurred, and then came the Poor People's Campaign and the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy. "It was like a continuing nightmare," he said. "It was worse than Berlin in 1945! The riots were especially terrible to witness. One day while I was sketching the grave site of John F. Kennedy, the guards told me that I would have to leave; moments later trucks and crewmen appeared to dig the grave of Robert F. Kennedy. I could not believe these tragedies, one after the other."

Of all the books he has done in the This Is series, his three favorites remain This Is Edinburgh (1961), This Is Venice (1961) and This Is Hong Kong (1965). He told me, "I loved working on This Is Edinburgh, though I hated the weather there. In the middle of summer, it was cold and rainy. You needed a hot-water bottle in bed with you. Working conditions were good though because the nights are very short in Edinburgh. I worked from 4:00 a.m. to midnight and finished the book in two months.

"I loved Venice because Venice is so beautiful! And I loved Hong Kong because of Hong Kong. Hong Kong was a hard book to do because of the language problem. It took me hours and hours to draw the characters of the alphabet. I tried to use a camera, but it didn't work. Sometimes I could have screamed! Three times, ten times, twelve times over it took me to perfect one picture!"

As Mr. Sasek speaks, he paces around the room. He never sits down; he never stops moving. His anecdotes come at you like sheets off a printing press. "Doing This Is Texas (1967) I had to travel 3,000 miles by bus to see all I had to see! When I did This Is Israel (1962), people laughed at me for hours the way I painted the signs. The couldn't understand how I did them left to right when they both read and write their letters right to left!"

He travels with only a handful of materials -- tubes of oil, paint brushes, and varied art supplies, His luggage amounts to only two suitcases wherever he goes.

Mr. Sasek lives in an apartment in Munich with his wife and 14-year-old son, Dusan Pedro. Munich is not strange territory for the author-illustrator. He worked there for six years as a speaker on Radio Free Europe, and in 1960 he published This Is Munich.

"When I return home," remarked Mr. Sasek, "I'll unwind by picking mushrooms in the woods." Perhaps while he's there, he'll think of another place to visit and off he'll go on another journey. Mr. Sasek's books have given children around the globe the opportunity to do armchair traveling with a minimum amount of reading and a lot of delightful looking; the texts have been translated into at least ten different languages. "This Is" books are Miroslav Sasek's creations, and many more cities await the touch of his imaginative pen and brush."

Text and pictures from Books are by people : interviews with 104 authors and illustrators of books for young people by Lee Bennett Hopkins.

New York : Citation Press, 1969. © Scholastic Magazines, Inc.