It was about four years ago that I first came across an illustrated children’s book entitled This is New York tucked away in a bargain bin. Immediately, I was drawn to its striking cover and began flicking through the pages, chuckling and smiling at the amusing illustrations and tit bits of information. It was amazing and I had to have it and we all fell in love with it, especially my daughter. (New York is a place that my wife and I have always dreamed of going to together. She spent time their on a vacation as a youth, but we hope in the near future to explore it together.) Today, we have almost all of the This is… book series. Now all three of our children sit, read and learn about some of the most famous cities in the world that Miroslav Sasek colourfully introduced to us.
There is a lot about the beloved author and illustrator that we don’t know, but by filling in the gaps of his life this is what we do know. M. Sasek was born on November 18th, 1916, in Prague, Czech Republic. (In 1916, Prague was an important city within the Austro-Hungarian Empire. After the Great War, Prague became the capital of Czechoslovakia and by 1992, after the peaceful dissolution of Czechoslovakia, it became the capital of the Czech Republic.) Details about his childhood are sketchy, though we do know that he trained as an architect in Prague because his parents it seemed didn’t approve of him becoming a painter. He would later study for some time at l’Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris, where he most likely developed and or fine tuned his striking style in illustration.
Like most people of Europe, he was likely caught up in the Second World War. Prague would suffer under Germany occupation and by the end of the war would be bombed in 1945. Hundreds of houses would be destroyed and damaged including important historical sites.
After the war, as most of Europe begun to rebuild, Sasek would also begin to build a career in children’s literature in a Prague publishing house. However, this would be short lived as Czechoslovakia would fall to the Czechoslovak coup d’etat of 1948, an event in which the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia, with the aid and interference of the Soviets, assumed undisputed control over the government. It must have come as a profound shock to Sasek and millions of others. All of a sudden the future seemed grim, which most likely prompted Sasek to escape or emigrate to Munich, West Germany. There he would settle down with his wife and stepson.
He would find a job working for Radio Free Europe from 1951 to 1957. Having escaped the clutches of communisim in his own country, he would contribute to providing news, information and analysis to places around the world, particularly Eastern Europe, where the free flow of information that we take for granted was of upmost importance there.
In and around 1958, Sasek would take a vacation in Paris. His time there inspired him to create a travel guide for children. Jeffrey Simmons, who would become Sasek’s publisher recalls him bringing in the ideas for This is Paris (1958). This is London (1959) followed up soon after to great reviews earning Sasek the New York Times Choice of Best Illustrated Book of the Year, for 1959. Sasek would receive further critical acclaim with his This is New York (1960) winning the New York Times Choice Award again and the Boy’s Club of America Junior Books Award in 1961. Suddenly, what was originally intended to be just a three book publication, expanded into a series. In between the period 1958 and 1974, there were 18 This is books. The between books were on Rome, New York, Edinburgh, Munich, Venice, San Francisco, Israel, Cape Canaveral, Ireland, Hong Kong, Greece, Texas, United Nations, Washington D.C., Australia and Historic Britain. (He would often travel to these cities reflecting the mood of the times.)
Just before his death in 1980, This is the United Nations (1968) would manage to appear on the International Board for Young People Honour List in 1979. A lovely honour for a wonderful illustrator
Today, another generation of children and adults alike are enjoying Miroslav Sasek’s classics. (Reissued since 2004) The elegant 50’s style of illustration is what grabs your attention first. The text is a little old fashion, but don’t let that put you off. His cities are playful, imaginative and detailed. The cities inhabitants are also whimsical and fun to look at. His enchanting world even manages to bring to life all the small things like shopfronts, people at the drive in, children playing, traffic and transport.