As mentioned in my previous review, I have been a Miroslav Sasek fan since childhood, and I think my own interest in language, history and travel can be traced back to the books in his This Is series — a collection of travelogues for children with delightful drawings and fascinating information. Sasek covers the sublime and mundane with a view to what might most interest a child, and in doing so he made the world, in all its diversity, seem an exciting place that one really ought to explore and enjoy. Sasek was born and raised in Czechoslovakia, but after the communist takeover in 1948, while he was studying abroad, he opted to remain in Paris. Sasek had been developing the idea of a child’s travel guide to Paris, which the W.H. Allen company in London published. This is Paris (1959) was an international success and the first of 18 This Is books that Sasek would produce until 1974. The four that I will review here are the four that I remember having as a child. I have original copies of each as well as an updated 2004 re-print of This is Paris. The question is, do the books hold up? And the answer, as far as I am concerned, is yes! They do even if some of the information is not quite accurate any more.
Each This Is book opens with a drawing of the country’s flag, or in the case of Venice, the city’s flag, as well as a drawing of Sasek, portfolio in hand, walking into the city. Within a page or two, he provides a 2-page panoramic view of that city, with lots of colorful little boxes representing buildings surrounding a few prominent landmarks for which the city is known. In This Is Paris, those landmarks include the Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame and Sacre Coeur. From this large scale view of Paris, Sasek shifts focus to something on a much smaller scale — cats! And some of the ordinary people one might encounter in Paris — a “dame” carrying her fresh baguette and a concierge keeping watch over the entrance to her building. Sasek provides the point of view of someone walking through the city seeing, on one hand, magnificent churches such as Notre Dame, and on the other, the variety of post boxes and busses on the street. He shows us the Place Vendome, Les Halles, and the Louvre right alongside the Sunday bird market, bistros, and the different types of police officer working in the city. Sasek also provides some fun facts that might stick with you long after you finish the book. For example, the rooster in the weather vane atop Notre Dame is said to contain a relic from the crown of thorns, and Napoleon had the column in the Place Vendome made from melted Russian and Austrian cannons after the Battle of Austerlitz. He ends his tour with a walk past the dog cemetery on the Clichy bridge, something unexpected but very interesting and perhaps worth looking for should one have the opportunity. In the updated 2004 edition, a few minor changes in text appear. Some are factual in nature, such as the population of the city or a note that a glass pyramid now sits above the Louvre. A couple, however, were a response to possibly offensive language, changing “housewife” to “dame” and “Arab” to “Moroccan.” Obviously the illustrations cannot be changed and are reflective of the time period in which they were drawn. Some are dated, and there’s not much to be done about that. I still enjoyed them immensely and I am impressed that so little of the text required change at all. The final image, Sasek leaving Paris, shows him with a goatee and wearing a black beret and turtleneck. The city has made an impression on him and it can do the same for us.
Sasek’s follow up to This is Paris was This is London, also published in 1959. The first image is fog, and then the panoramic view of London, with St. Paul’s, the London Bridge and Parliament rising from the colorful squares. Much like This is Paris, this book shows children the big well known sights — churches, museums, government buildings and landmarks — but also the people and the everyday experiences of those who live and work in London. So after showing us St. Paul’s and telling readers what one will find there, he also shows us the smallest and oldest church in London, St. Ethelburga’s. We see people “queuing” for the bus and the place wherebowler hats are made. We see grand palaces and learn to look at the color of the plume on guardsmen’s hats in order to see what kind of guard they are. Meridian zero is a marker for longitude and time, and speaking of time, 4 pm is teatime! Sasek’s drawings of the people of London are especially charming, as they show the great diversity of that city on public transportation or in the parks or the pub. Sasek ends his London tour with a trip to Old Bailey and Scotland Yard, before showing us the street cleaner doing his job to make London pleasant. Sasek leaving London is wearing a bowler, smoking a pipe and carrying an umbrella. He looks quite happy about his time spent there.
This is Rome (1960) holds a special place in my heart, since it was my favorite when I was little. Sasek starts with a brief retelling of the story of Romulus and Remus next to an image of the Roman ruins. The panoramic picture highlights the Vatican, the Colosseum and the Monument to Victor Emmanuel II. After showing us statues of the great Caesars, Sasek shows us a couple of Roman men who share the faces of those Caesars but who are engaged in the mundane activities of eating and making cappuccino. He then presents a typical Roman neighborhood where laundry is out on the line and a blue ribbon indicates a home where “a little Roman” has just been born. The juxtaposition of lofty and ordinary is a great part of the charm of this book. When it comes to the Colosseum, Sasek has one page of facts about its size and construction and use, and then a page showing it overrun today with cats and tourists. In another part of the book, he shows a pyramid built as a funeral monument next to a pyramid of wine bottles. My favorite image is the “mouth of truth” from the Church of Santa Maria. It is said that if you put your hand in it and have lied, your hand will be bitten! I regret not getting to see it when I visited 30 years ago. Sasek ends his tour as many tourists do, with a visit to the Fountain of Trevi, where, if you throw in a coin over your right shoulder, you will be sure to visit Rome again. The Sasek leaving Rome is wearing a toga and has been rendered as a mosaic.
This is Venice (1961) has my favorite panoramic view. You can see how Venice from above looks like a dolphin, with the Piazza San Marco and San Giorgio Maggiore rising above the city as ships pull in and away from its coast. Sasek tells readers they will have to leave their cars behind and then shows how Venetians rely on a variety water transport for everyday life: deliveries, taxis, funerals and weddings. Water and waterways are vital to Venice, but it’s a double edged sword, as Sasek demonstrates through depictions of flooding. Sasek shows the great museums, churches and government buildings, as always, and the lovely bridges that span the waterways. Gondolas, gondoliers and ganzers, ie, the men who use hooks to pull the gondolas to land and help visitors debark, get lots of attention, too, with Sasek providing specs on the size of gondolas and their history. Piazza San Marco is examined in detail as are the pigeons who flock to the piazza just like tourists do. Sasek leaving Venice is wearing the hat and shirt of a gondolier and has several pigeons in tow.
Maybe it’s just nostalgia, but I really feel like these books have held up pretty well. Yes, some of the information might be dated. Fashions change, and of course cities change, too. There is more to see in each of these places now than there was 50-60 years ago. Nonetheless, much of what Sasek chose to draw and describe is still there and still attracts tourists. I was pleased that his choice of words and descriptions of people are by and large thoughtful and non-offensive. Here was a man who had great curiosity about the world, and his delight and sense of wonder in it comes across in his images and words. I don’t know if children today would find this as interesting as I did when I was a kid. Maybe because the world was smaller then, and information harder to come by, and travel abroad was more “exotic,” these books came across as a revelation. It was fun to read them again and it does make me want to go back and visit the places in Europe that I saw 30 years ago.