Through the Red Box

by Peter Sís

Peter Sís's Tibet Through the Red Box

Children's book review by Steve Barancik

Ages 8-Adult

Magical non-fiction

Peter Sís grew up behind the Iron Curtain, in Hungary. (Documented in his 2008 Caldecott Honor book. Click the link.)

When he was a child, his father, a filmmaker, was sent overseas to China, to show the Chinese how to document a road-building project.

It was to be a relatively short trip, but then Sís's father and his crew suffered a disaster that separated them from their hosts. They found themselves stranded in Tibet.

His father's absence was traumatic for Sís, who may even have suffered from an hysterical paralysis as a result. When his father finally returned, young Peter was in a sickbed, perhaps even unwell mentally.

His father told Peter stories of his time in Tibet, stories presented as true and yet impossible, by our own standards of what is real and possible. The implausibility of the stories, compounded by the haze of time and his own condition at the time, left the adult Sís in a strange place relative to the purported events and their own place in his childhood.

As you may be perceiving, Tibet Through the Red Box is very much - on one level at least - a book about the nature of reality. And there's plenty here to justify readers coming to vastly differing conclusions.

That's the fun.

Sís begins his narrative in 1994, when his father summons adult Peter back to Prague with a tantalizing note, stating, "The Red Box is now yours."

The Red Box was where the elder Sís stored his memories and keepsakes of his time in Tibet. It had, all these years, been for the father and the father alone. Its significance could not be overstated. The son returns home. Review continues.

collaged images from Tibet Through the Red Box

What the book captures is Sís's adult reading of his father's Tibetan diaries, contained in the Red Box. Condensed (and translated) by Sís for our consumption, we are still at a significant remove from what the elder Sís did (or didn't) experience. Which puts us in much the same shoes as young Peter, his dearly missed father recently returned and earnestly sharing impossible stories.

It must have been rather disconcerting. Is my father crazy? Or am I?

Peter Sís shares his father's diaries without skepticism or comment. The only clue we have as to Sís's belief or disbelief in his father's accounting of events in Tibet is a quote from Vladimir Nabokov's The Gift, wherein Marco Polo refuses on his deathbed to retract his own accounts of supernatural experiences in the mountain land.

Sís won a 1999 Caldecott Honor for his illustration work on the book, wherein he works to convey from his own mind's eye the things another man saw.

Aimed at an older audience, this isn't a book for reading to the young ones at bedtime. Rather, it's a multimedia meditation on the nature of reality and what is knowable. Playwright David Henry Hwang found enough substance here to write a stageplay about it.

Peter Sís is generous enough to share with us not only his struggle to know Tibet...Through the Red Box, but his struggle to know his father as well.

More Caldecott honorees.

Read more of Steve's reviews.

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