“Tibet Through the Red Box” by Peter Sís

Prague, September 19, 1994
The Red Box is now yours.
Love, Father

Thus begins author and illustrator Peter Sís’s magical artbook Tibet Through the Red Box, the tale of a father passing his legacy — his story — to his son. The mysterious Red Box of the title contains artifacts and diaries from a long-ago journey to Tibet, an odyssey filled with excitement and danger and discovery.

In a sense, this book is a biography: It is based on the real Tibetan odyssey of Sís’s father, a filmmaker in the 1950s, and the accident that left Vladimir Sís lost and wandering in the Himalayan mountains, cut off from any communication with his family and the world he knew. But Tibet Through the Red Box is much more than that. It is also a book about the magic of memory and imagination. The artifacts hidden in the Red Box are not lifeless objects, they are magical tokens, talismans that transport Peter Sís — and the reader — to a wonderful in-between world where the true story of a father’s adventure merges with his son’s boyhood memories and fantasies about it. I don’t want to reveal too much because part of the pleasure of this book is in the sense of wonder and discovery it evokes. Suffice it to say that on your journey you are likely to meet yaks and yetis, to observe colorful prayer flags waving in the wind and lamas drifting by on giant kites.

I’ve been a fan of Sís’s work for years now, but I suspect many readers have never heard of him because his books are generally relegated to the children’s section of bookstores. I’m sure I would have enjoyed Sís’s books as a kid. They’re fascinating to look at: filled with his intricate drawings and spidery handwriting. And his writing style is vivid and simple. As an adult, though, I can fully appreciate the depth and magic of Peter Sís’s storytelling. His books are truly enchanting. They invite the reader to dream, to fill in the gaps, to imagine all that is left unseen and unsaid. In Tibet Through the Red Box, Peter Sís has conjured up a Tibet that never was, a Tibet that existed only in his imagination. And now it exists in mine.

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