Miroslav Sasek

This is Sasek: Miroslav Sasek (1916-1980) (or Meer-oh-slahf Sah-sek as pronounced, and written Ŝaŝek, but best known by his drawn signature: ‘M. Sasek’). Sasek was born in Prague, Czechoslovakia, November 1916, to parents who generally discouraged his early interest in drawing and painting and pushed him instead into training as an architect. At the onset of the communist coup in 1948, aged 32, Sasek left Prague for Munich, where from 1951-57 he worked for Radio Free Europe.

On a short holiday to Paris and enthralled by the city and its history, Sasek realised that distracted parents with children in tow rarely seemed to interpret the city to their off-spring, and that sketches of his surroundings he was making might best be used as illustrations for a children’s book. ‘This Is Paris’ (1959) was born.

Sasek’s illustrations might best be described as whimsical. There’s a gentle and quirky wit to his pictures: the policeman twirls his truncheon much as a child might twirl an imaginary wand; the string of helium balloons sold in the park, an outsized illustration which seems to capture the way a child might prioritize its visual scene, reaches higher than the tallest of palm trees. And this is Sasek’s brilliance: his illustrations interpret the adult city to the child, but they as often take their reference from the child’s perspective. He seems to ask, ‘what might he or she see, find interesting, or notice first’.

Sasek wrote short, laconic sentences almost as captions or legends to attach to these illustrations, sentences the directness of which mimic the tones of an adult instructing a wide-eyed and interested child. ‘This Is Paris’, he begins. ‘So here we are’. ‘This is what a bus stop looks like’ and ‘Here’s your ticket’ he continues. (Because of course, each of these everyday things is different wherever you travel). This is direct, instructional, simple and whimsical, and he adopts this gentle tone from the first, right through to the eighteenth ‘This Is’ title.

The pictures reference the child’s perspective, whilst the words are in the idiomatic style of a kind yet pedagogic parent, one who instinctually knows what might appeal, yet also wishes to be informative. He travels, as it were, hand-in-hand with the child, interpreting each unaccustomed thing, each new site with precision. ‘Detail’, Sasek once remarked, ‘is very important to children. If I paint 53 windows instead of 54 in a building, a deluge of letters pours in upon me’.*

Sasek criss-crossed the world to write his books, from Paris to London, Rome to New York, Edinburgh to San Francisco, and as far afield as Israel, Hong Kong and Australia. He lived, otherwise, in Munich where his wife worked, and where his stepson was schooled.

Miroslav Sasek

His books have been translated into numerous languages and his illustrations have met with critical acclaim, with both ‘This Is London’ and ‘This Is New York’ named ‘Best Illustrated Children’s Book of the Year’ by the New York Times in 1959 and 1960 respectively. Sasek’s own three favourites were ‘This Is Venice’ (1961), ‘This Is Hong Kong’ (1965) and ‘This Is Edinburgh’ (1961) – though, as he reported to Lee Bennett Hopkins, he hated the Scottish weather in Edinburgh.*

Sasek died whilst visiting his sister in Wettingen, Switzerland, in May 1980. He left a legacy of brilliantly illustrated books which have never been out of print. Their mid-century aesthetic finds a particular resonance now with its retro-charm, and as prints, these are not only for children. Sasek was instructing the child about the adult’s world, as much as capturing things of immediate interest to the child. There’s the ‘adult’s’ public house, the place of historical importance, the stations and architecture of an adult’s world. As prints particularly, therefore, many of these images have as strong an appeal to adults as the ‘children’s’ images – the balloons in the park, the sailboats in the Jardin du Luxembourg – have for children. The Bookroom Art Press is delighted to be publishing these works as limited edition prints. This is the art of Miroslav Sasek.

* Quoted in ‘Books are for People’, Lee Bennett Hopkins (1969)